Thursday, January 06, 2005

Torture memos and spin

I can't really see the point to voting to confirm an Attorney General appointee who appears to epitomize the sleaziest traits, to which the worst practicing lawyers in our society are prone, of seeking to give the client what he wants without regard to the requirements of law. There are plenty of tax practitioners like this, and plenty of other tax practitioners who consider such behavior reprehensible and try not to do it themselves, albeit facing fierce pressures and close judgment calls. (Not to anoint the reputable practitioners as saints or to deny their self-interest in retaining their good names, but still they have to internalize lawfulness as a norm in order to do it properly.)
When it is a matter of sleazy tax or corporate practitioners, however, at least we are not talking about memos justifying torture or slanted bum's rush death penalty memos that fail to fairly present the case for a stay. Perhaps Ken Lay's lawyers should attend the Gonzalez hearings wearing T-shirts that say: "No one died at Enron."
How bad is Gonzalez? I think pretty bad; the phrase "How do you sleep at night?" occurs to me but that is just my naivete. But one interesting bit that's been discussed a lot, but always with spin that makes it hard to evaluate properly, is the following famous quote from one of his torture memos:
"In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms and scientific instruments," he said.
Bingo - anti-Bush forces nail him for saying torture restrictions are quaint.
But counter-bingo: pro-Bush forces rightly point out that the word "quaint' is being taken out of context by the other side. No matter how strongly one feels about barring torture, "quaint" mightn't be a bad word for the specific privileges that Gonzalez describes this way. Surely we wouldn't owe Bin Laden scrip and a soccer uniform if we caught him. [Although keep in mind that the torture methods are being used on hundreds of people who know little and were picked up haphazardly.]
But then comes counter-counter-bingo. As per the New York Times today: "In fact, the conventions do not require that prisoners of war be given things like athletic uniforms and scientific instruments, but rather that the authorities allow such items to be received by mail."
Now we have it, if not spin-free, then at least properly contextualized. Gonzalez seems to have fabricated the "quaint" rules, I would have to think deliberately, so that he could use the word "quaint" in close proximity to the torture bar, thus further rhetorically discrediting the Geneva conventions as a whole (adding to the rhetorical slant of "strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners," i.e., banning torture). This is an old debating tactic - make one part as ridiculous as possible so you can trash the whole.
So the initial anti-Bush spin strikes me as fundamentally correct after all. Gonzalez was reaching so he could put the word "quaint" in there.
One last bit of context here is that I am inclined to think the Bush Administration favors torture as an end, not a means. This is why there has been so little concern about limiting it to genuine "high-value targets." I personally have no difficulty with the stylized hypothetical where you torture a madman to find out where he has put the bomb that would kill 10 million people. But the real world situation is quite different from the hypothetical. It seems to have more to do with being tough guys and taking it out on some non-Western people because other non-Western people did something bad to us.

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