Cheney requests anti-torture exemption

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Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney went into a closed-door session with a group of Republican senators to outline his appeal to the CIA for an exemption to a proposed ban on torturing terrorist suspects in American custody.

Cheney told the senators that the U.S. doesn’t engage in torture, even though the administration, he said, needs an exemption from any law banning “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of prisoners in case the president decided such treatment was necessary to prevent a terrorist attack.

William Schulz, executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International, challenged Cheney’s claim about not practicing torture. “Many questions remain unanswered,” he said, “responsible individuals are beyond the scope of investigation, policies that facilitate torture remain in place, and prisoners continue to be held in secret detention.

“The failure to substantially change policy and practice after the scandal of Abu Ghraib leaves the U.S. government completely lacking in credibility when it asserts its opposition to torture,” Schulz added.

Associated Press reported Cheney made his comments at a regular weekly private meeting of Senate Republicans. Several senators said Cheney often is present at these meetings, but rarely speaks.

This time, the room was cleared of aides before the vice president spoke. One senator said the comments made contained references to classified material. The senators who disclosed these events declined to be identified because of the confidential nature of the session.

A spokesman for Cheney told the AP: “The vice president’s office doesn’t have any comment on a private meeting with members of the Senate.”

The vice-president was supported in his views by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama while dissent was expressed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain has said he was tortured while a prisoner during the Vietnam War. He is the chief Senate sponsor of the anti-torture provision that has twice cleared the Senate and drawn veto threats from the White House.

Cheney made his appeal at a time when Congress is wrestling with the torture issue in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and charges of mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the U.S. is holding about 500 prisoners, many captured in Afghanistan, at the naval base there.

Human rights groups charge the United States turns prisoners over to other countries that it knows will torture them in an effort to gain intelligence information. Additionally, it has come to light that this country operates a string of secret prisons outside the U.S. where the Geneva Convention is believed to be ignored. The Washington Post reported that “foreign officials” assert these secret prisons for top al Qaeda suspects are in eastern Europe. The facilities may be former Soviet detention centers in eastern Europe. The Post said these “black sites” are alleged to be part of a CIA network in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand and Afghanistan. The European Union is investigating the alleged sites in their member countries.

The vice president made his appeal just two days before former Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell’s chief of staff while Powell was secretary of state, told National Public Radio that he had traced a memo to Cheney’s office that he believes led to the abuse of prisoners by U.S. troops in Iraq.

The White House initially tried to kill McCain’s anti-torture amendment when it was pending in the Senate, but switched its strategy to lobby for an exemption in cases of “clandestine counter-terrorism operations conducted abroad, with respect to terrorists who are not citizens of the United States.”

Both efforts failed. The amendment, sponsored by McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., passed 90-9. “It is vitally important that Congress affirm our nation’s very important, long-standing obligation not to engage in torture or other cruel treatment,” Durbin said. “In an age of terrorism, we may be tempted by the notion that torture is justified. Our enemies certainly do not respect any rules in their relentless quest to kill Americans. But this nation’s commitment to principle, even during difficult times, is what distinguishes us from the terrorists we fight.

“There are some lines that we will not cross. Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are inconsistent with the principles of liberty and the rule of law that underpin our democracy. To sacrifice this principle would grant the terrorists a valuable victory at our expense,” Durbin said.

Comparable legislation in the House does not include an anti-torture provision, and it is unclear if such language will be part of two big defense measures Congress hopes to send the president later this year.

Last month, Amnesty International (AI) released a 200-page report calling for an independent investigation into torture by American military personnel. AI stressed that without such a probe and a clear and unequivocal rejection of torture and mistreatment by top U.S. officials, “conditions remain for further abuses to occur.”

It also calls on President Bush to publicize and rescind any directives by himself or any other official that could be seen as approving “disappearances,” torture, or other inhuman treatment. The American Bar Association also backed the call for an independent investigation.

AI argues that decisions tied to torture originated at the top of the government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld specifically authorized a number of abuses, such as isolation, stripping, hooding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, using dogs in interrogations and secret detentions, amounting to serious human rights violations and, in some cases, torture.

The Washington Post article referred to a technique euphemistically called ‘waterboarding,’ in which, a prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.”

“By lowering safeguards,” AI said, “demonizing detainees, and displaying a disregard for its international legal obligations, the administration at best sowed confusion among interrogators and at worst, gave the green light to torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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