Alberto Gonzales' Role in Torture Memos Like "Mafia Lawyer Whose Job it is to Help the Don Stay Out of Jail"

Mark Danner interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings today on the confirmation of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general of the United States.

In a New York Times Op-Ed today, journalist Mark Danner of the New Yorker and the author of the new book, "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror" writes:

"At least since Watergate, Americans have come to take for granted a certain story line of scandal, in which revelation is followed by investigation, adjudication and expiation. Together, Congress and the courts investigate high-level wrongdoing and place it in a carefully constructed narrative, in which crimes are charted, malfeasance is explicated and punishment is apportioned as the final step in the journey back to order, justice and propriety.

"When Alberto Gonzales takes his seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for hearings to confirm whether he will become attorney general of the United States, Americans will bid farewell to that comforting story line. The senators are likely to give full legitimacy to a path that the Bush administration set the country on more than three years ago, a path that has transformed the United States from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that practices torture routinely. Through a process of redefinition largely overseen by Mr. Gonzales himself, a practice that was once a clear and abhorrent violation of the law has become in effect the law of the land."

  • Mark Danner, New Yorker staff writer and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. He is also the author of the new book "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror."

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Danner joins us in our studio.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, let's begin in terms of what are the key acts of Alberto Gonzales to promote what the current situation of this sort of rampant pattern of torture by American troops of prisoners.

MARK DANNER: Well, Mr. Gonzales, as White House counsel, was essentially point man at the top of the administration in carrying out their determination to change how the United States deals with prisoners. Early on, right after 9/11, it was recognized within the administration that we have to take the gloves off, which is the phrase that Kofer Black, the counter insurgency official in the C.I.A. used. Mr. Gonzales pushed through a couple of very important changes. One was the idea that we will withhold, the United States for the first time will withhold Geneva Convention protection from prisoners in Afghanistan. That's not only Al Qaeda prisoners but Taliban as well. The second change was a redefinition of torture. Torture, of course, as your listeners know is illegal. It's illegal under American domestic law. It's illegal under the Torture Convention, the international agreements that the United States is party to, and in this administration, torture was essentially redefined in very, very narrow terms. Torture has to be pain under this memorandum that the justice department drafted at Mr. Gonzales's instigation. Torture has to be the infliction of pain equivalent to major organ failure or death. So, the level that pain must exceed in order to constitute torture under the law, according to this administration is a very, very, very high one. If you use that standard, then things that most people will recognize as torture, water boarding for, example, in which the prisoner is submerged and made to think he's drowning and are brought to the point of drowning. That suddenly becomes poof, like magic, not torture. A key part of what Mr. Gonzales supervised was taking procedures that everyone in the world recognized as torture and saying ha, they're not torture. They're interrogation techniques but they do not rise to the level of illegality. That's what he will be remember the for as counsel to the president.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Interestingly, in terms of the leaks that have come out of the administration debate over the issue. It's clear that Secretary of State Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the central command of the military opposed these formulations of Gonzales and Secretary Powell actually gave a stinging memo rebuking them and challenging them, and yet Powell's on the way out and Gonzales is rising up.

MARK DANNER: That's right. One of the fascinating things about this story is the fight within the administration. And you see it in the collection of documents in this book. You see that the State Department and also many military officials, many military officers, were the ones who really fought this redefinition. Secretary Powell -- I think partly because of his background as a military officer, obviously, believed that this kind of redefinition would really end up hurting terribly, not only America's place in the world, but American troops. Because military commanders tend to look at these sorts of policies very clearly as something that will affect their people, their troops. The Geneva Convention is there not simply to protect prisoners Americans take, but Americans when they become prisoners, and military officers have this kind of thinking drummed into them. They also think that the use of torture is going to affect good order and discipline. The troops who do this to prisoners are in the end not going to be very good soldiers. Not effective soldiers. You see in these memos. Now we have them. You know, they're published in this book. They're available. You see this argument within the American government about whether or not to do this. Powell and many in the military are on the side of saying, look, we cannot go forward along this road. Much of what they predicted would happen has in fact come to pass.

AMY GOODMAN: You have this unprecedented letter that has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee of a dozen top generals, brigadier generals retired, including the former chair of the joint chiefs of staff. Yesterday we had on James Cullen Retired Brigadier General. We asked him, do you think that Alberto Gonzales endangered the troops? And this is a Brigadier General, and he said yes. Yet, he also raised the issue of people like New York Senator, Charles Schumer and others saying that Bush has a right to appoint his Cabinet, his Attorney General, and his fear that the Democrats will not seriously question, and that the questions are coming from outside, from generals, from brigadier generals, from military lawyers.

MARK DANNER: That's right. I think there is a general feel, a fear that the Democrats, like Senator Schumer of New York, will assume, you know what? The republicans have the vote. This guy is going to get through so why do we fight him, particularly on an issue that the general perception is that most americans don't necessarily care about. This is thought politically to be essentially defending terrorists rather than defending the human rights of people. So, on the other hand, I think over the last several days, there's been a palpable change of attitude in Washington. I think people have suddenly realized there's going to be a fight on this issue. You see it in the statement yesterday by President Bush supporting his nominee, affirming that he stands firmly behind him. I think they have had more opposition than they expected. Critical are the dozen military officers, admirals and generals that you mentioned, who include not only former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Shalikashvili, but General Joseph P. Hoor, who was the successor of General Schwarzkopf. He ran the Middle East command, a very distinguished officer, and has been very vocal in his arguments against what Gonzales did. Basically, pointed out as I quote in The New York Times op ed that the French in Algeria used torture in a very widespread systematic fashion to fight an insurgency that's very like what the United States is fighting in Iraq, and as he said, it led to immediate successeses in the battle of Algers but it eventually dishonored the army and lost them the war. I think this is a very useful point that we're talking here - not simply about a human rights issue, although it is primarily a human rights issue, but also in the end, a practical issue about whether you can win a war when you let your army torture, when you let your people slip below the standards of human rights that they are claiming to be in Iraq, and to be in other parts of the world to promote. Whether or not you believe that, the key point here is that by using this technique, you undermine your own position.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Alberto Gonzales's direct involvement. The Times yesterday, the front page piece, said that he directly intervened in the August, 2002 memo. People hear this memo, that memo. What is Gonzales's responsibility here?

MARK DANNER: It's very good question. There are two very clear things he did. One was he spearheaded the effort to deny Geneva Convention Protections to prisoners that the United States took in Afghanistan. Point one. That's clearly the seed, kind of the bad seed at the beginning of a lot of these abuses. The second thing he did was solicit from the Department of Justice, from their office of legal counsel, which is kind of their think tank, an opinion on torture. An opinion that essentially torture actually is a very narrow phenomenon, intense pain, severe pain, the level of debilitation or death or organ failure and things that fall below that level of pain, they're not torture. They may be abuses, but they're essentially allowed. They are legal. And apparently, what we learned in the Times yesterday was that Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel essentially went to the Justice Department. He went beyond or by, below, I guess would you say, Attorney General Ashcroft and the Deputy Attorney General, and asked directly the people in the think tank to give him a memo that implied very strongly in the Times piece, he essentially led them on about what he wanted. In the questions he asked, it was very clear that he wanted this result. And they gave him the result. That result, which was all of these things that you wanted to do to prisoners, though they look like for torture, sound like torture, feel like torture, are not torture under the law. That was spread throughout the government and in the end dominated how the military has treated prisoners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the prime authors of that memo was John Hew, a frequent commentator on the Lehrer Newshour.

MARK DANNER: A colleague of mine when I teach at the Berkeley, University of California Law School.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Apparently in the A.P. release of the prepared statement that Gonzales is going to make today, Gonzales tries to distinguish between what his role was as White House Counsel, where he was basically giving advice to the president, and what he understands his role will be as Attorney General, where he has to stand for the law and justice for all of the American people. Now, that sounds to me like a strange dichotomy that he's making between his role as top law enforcer.

MARK DANNER: It's a common distinction that they make. When you become Attorney General you take an oath to protect the laws of the United States. As White House Counsel, you are essentially the president's lawyer. My view of this is rather simple. In his position in the White House, rather than helping the president do what he needed to do while following the law, he gave him advice that let him circumvent the law. And my colleague, Anthony Lewis in a piece a while back in the New York Review of Books, compared reading these memos to reading the documents of a mafia lawyer, whose job it is to help the don stay out of jail. This is how we can reinterpret these laws. So that in effect, you're breaking them, but we can claim that you're not. You know, I was looking at it on the way down here at this editorial in the Wall Street Journal today, their lead editorial, entitled "Torture Showdown". You see them actually, they say, as for Al Qaeda, let us describe the most coercive interrogation technique that was ever authorized. It's called water boarding. It involves strapping a detainee down, wrapping his face in a wet towel and dripping water on it to give the sensation of drowning. Is that torture? We are told it is used to train U.S pilots in case they are shot down and captured. They're trying to argue essentially that because these procedures are used to train Americans, and how they will be tortured, that in fact, it's not torture. Which is a quite ridiculous argument. Water boarding, going to Algeria, was one of the favorite techniques of the French when they tortured in Algeria in the late 1950's. In Latin Amerca it's called el submarineo. There is no question that this is torture. You're essentially convincing somebody that you're drowning them. We have the major national newspaper essentially arguing in here, very close to the terms in which the White House did, that actually this may be abusive, this may be pushing the line but it's not torture. And I think that this is a very less than credible line of argument. It's corrupting all of us, I believe. They make a second argument here which is that, well, you know, the idea behind these techniques of interrogation is to prevent another attack. If there's another terrorist attack on the United States, that may lead to a crackdown that will really remove all civil liberties. So, in fact, this is a way to support civil liberties. People used to use this argument about the Salvadorian war, for example, by saying, yes, there are the massacres and the rest of them, but think if the communists take over, that will be a humen rights catastrophe. In other words, it's always an abuse of humen rights that's used to prevent a larger one. I feel as if that sort of reasoning is a snare and a delusion, and a trap into which this country and its public life and civic life cannot fall. In the end, this is why the title of the op-ed was "We Are All Torturers Now." It corrupts all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Mark Danner is the author of Torture and Truth:America, Abu Ghraib and The War on Terror. And he has written an op-ed in the New York Times today called "We Are All Torturers Now"


Mark Danner on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez Pacifica Radio Network

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