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The Real Memogate Scandal

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  • Eric Alterman
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Alberto Gonzales’s name first came to public prominence when media reports revealed the president’s chief legal adviser had authored memos terming key aspects of the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners’ rights “quaint” – thereby signing off on various Bush administration policies ranging from illegal detention to prisoner abuse.

Redefining torture to exclude anything short of “death, organ failure�??serious impairment of bodily functions” or prolonged and severe mental illness, the memos shocked almost everyone who saw them, save administration members themselves, and their supporters in the right-wing punditocracy. For instance, the editors of The Wall Street Journal shrugged off what they termed the most coercive interrogation technique that was ever actually authorized. It’s called “water-boarding,” and it involves strapping a detainee down, wrapping his face in a wet towel and dripping water on it to produce the sensation of drowning. Is that “torture”? According to the Red Cross, apparently yes, it is.

Similarly, Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke said on FOX News’ Special Report with Brit Hume that “What [the memos] seem to permit is things that are short of what we would consider torture, where you almost kill somebody or, you know, beat him to within inch of his life or something like that.” Jonah Goldberg, in his nationally syndicated column, lamented that “Gonzales’ ethnic force-field couldn’t fully protect him from reality” during his mistreatment by Democrats at his confirmation hearings, while justifying the expanded arsenal of coercion as “something a bit shy of torture.”

And lest we forget, there’s Rush Limbaugh, who, on his May 6, 2004, radio show effusively endorsed the just-revealed instances of abuse at Abu Ghraib as “pretty effective,” a “brilliant maneuver,” and akin to “standard good old American pornography, the Britney Spears or Madonna concerts or whatever,” adding that it struck his formerly drug-addled mind as a case of “people having a good time.”

Now that Gonzales is Bush’s Orwellian choice for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, the entire story is being washed with a bright coat of white. Following Gonzales’s testimony, torture’s apologists took a slightly new tack, arguing not that a bit of torture was not taking place here and there but that its unhappy recipients should shut up and take it because “enemy combatants” are not covered under the Geneva Conventions. On Jan. 6, Bill O’Reilly and National Review Editor Rick Lowry trotted out the familiar argument that because suspected Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda prisoners are not part of a standing army, they are exempt from the Convention. Alas, the authors of the Conventions were one step ahead. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians, which these prisoners by O’Reilly’s, Lowry’s and Gonzales’s own reckoning are, have rights during wartime. As Media Matters has pointed out, on the same day O’Reilly and Lowry got their facts wrong, Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes peddled the same falsehoods on FOX’s Special Report with Brit Hume, while that night on CNN Tucker Carlson did the same.

While it would appear to some that the Bush administration has conceded the failure of its efforts to stretch the Conventions beyond their breaking point – it purposely withdrew one of the memos last June – Gonzales remains unapologetic= When asked if he thinks the president has the authority to immunize acts of torture, the appointed AG replied that the question represented “a hypothetical that’s never going to occur,” because the United States doesn’t torture people. Well, that would depend on the meaning of “torture,” since the Bush administration seems to have chosen to interpret its own actions in a manner it applies to much of reality: We’re good, ipso facto, what we do is also good, and hence, can’t be called “torture”—however torturously explained. Along the way, however, it has not only alienated most of the world, but even a few members of its own team. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week, “We’ve dramatically undermined the war effort” by “playing cute with the law. We’ve lost our way.” It was a degree of honesty in a Republican politician that shamed the partisans in the punditocracy.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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Eric Alterman

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