No Comment — November 5, 2007, 5:03 am

The Bellinger-Sands Debate

When was the last time that the American secretary of state’s senior legal adviser was an object of near-universal ridicule in the international legal community? In my lifetime, only once: right now. The legal adviser in question is John Bellinger. Earlier this year, he delivered a talk at The Hague. A British colleague who had attended alerted me to it, and I wrote about it in “The Report from Cloudcuckooland.” The audience’s reaction, I was told, was “derisory, barely polite.” And the reason for the public contempt consistently shown Bellinger by the legal community is simple: He finds it impossible to condemn torture. No legal adviser before him had any problem with that proposition. Alas, Bellinger is responsible for defending the posture of the Bush Administration, which “does not torture,” except, of course, when it tortures with gusto.

Bellinger professed his defense of torture most recently in a debate with Professor Philippe Sands, one of Britain’s preeminent international-law authorities. And in so doing, Bellinger used almost exactly the same studied dodges and evasions that were used by Michael Mukasey in his recent appearance before a Senate committee, which suggests that they have now emerged as some fairly formal doctrine. The Guardian reports:

The top legal adviser within the US state department, who counsels the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on international law, has declined to rule out the use of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding even if it were applied by foreign intelligence services on US citizens. John Bellinger refused to denounce the technique, which has been condemned by human rights groups as a form of torture, during a debate on the Bush administration’s stance on international law held by Guardian America, the Guardian’s US website. He said he would not include or exclude any technique without first considering whether it violated the convention on torture.

The inability of a senior US official to rule out such an interrogation method even in the case of it being used against Americans underlines the legal knots in which the administration has tied itself. The dispute over alleged US involvement in torture has threatened to derail the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as President George Bush’s nominee for attorney general. Mr Mukasey, a retired federal judge, faces a confirmation vote from the Senate judiciary committee tomorrow and is facing opposition from Democratic members over his stance on waterboarding. In earlier hearings, Mr Mukasey said he found the method repugnant, but refused to declare it illegal. There has been speculation that he refrained from doing so out of fear that such a declaration would expose US interrogators, as well as their chain of command, possibly up to the level of the president, to possible criminal prosecution.
Waterboarding is a technique in which a prisoner is made to believe he is drowning by placing a cloth over his face and pouring water over it. The procedure is banned by the US military, but has been used in an unknown number of interrogations of terrorist suspects by the CIA. Reports have suggested the CIA outlawed the method last year, but the Bush administration has yet to confirm this.

Mr Bellinger made his remarks during a Guardian debate with Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at University College London. Mr Sands asked whether he could imagine any circumstances in which waterboarding could be justified on an American national by a foreign intelligence service. “One would have to apply the facts to the law to determine whether any technique, whatever happened, would cause severe physical pain or suffering,” Mr Bellinger said.

Note the depravity to which the Bush Administration is now descending. It is prepared to accept the torture of American intelligence personnel as legal . . . just so long as it gets to torture whenever it would like.

If you think you can stomach being this embarrassed by a representative of your government, listen to the Bellinger–Sands debate or read the full transcript here. As debates go, it’s not a very evenly matched affair. Bellinger is left as a grease spot on the stage. Which demonstrates the majesty of the Bush Administration’s international-law policy.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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