The current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue sends his press spokeswoman, Dana Perino, out to handle the questions. “Tell us what the president knows about the waterboarding tapes” demand the reporters. “The president knew n-o-t-h-i-n-g,” replied Perino. Then, over the weekend, Perino went quiet, refusing even to restate what she said at that press conference. And as the story, which has what those in the media call “legs,” expands over the week, Perino again responds with the president’s faulty memory. After telling a gasping audience that she had no idea what the Cuban Missile Crisis was about, the White House’s blissfully forgetful voice of truth announces that her boss “has no recollection” surrounding the tapes, using the standard denial favored by those hoping to evade a perjury rap and, more recently, by attorneys general, who know something they desperately don’t want to relate. In the meantime, a CIA agent recounts that the torture process was set out with absolute clarity. Every time the CIA wanted to torture a person it held, a written application was put together, which was cleared through the agency, and then went to the White House, to the National Security Council, for approval. And the approval invariably came back, a separate approval for each and every application of each torture technique. And who was the person issuing those approvals? The man who heads the NSC, of course. George W. Bush.
Another highly regarded intelligence agent, Larry Johnson, goes the next step. He’s reasonably certain, he says in a radio interview, that President Bush has personally viewed the torture tape–the same tapes that were destroyed to avoid having to turn them over under a federal court order. Who knows? Maybe this is how Bush was entertaining himself the day he almost choked to death on a pretzel. In any event, it’s the sort of thing that one would tend to forget right? Wouldn’t you immediately forget having seen a “snuff flick”? It’s so mundane.
The Miami Herald furnishes us with a vital history lesson. It reminds us, courtesy of former Florida State president Sandy D’Alemberte, that we once had presidents with a moral backbone, who understood that torture was wrong and how its use would tarnish the nation’s reputation, and its moral fiber.
So let’s start with this quiz. What president issued this urgent cable after receiving information about the use of waterboarding by American soldiers overseas?
THE PRESIDENT DESIRES TO KNOW IN THE FULLEST AND MOST CIRCUMSTANTIAL MANNER ALL THE FACTS . . . FOR THE VERY REASON THAT THE PRESIDENT INTENDS TO BACK UP THE ARMY IN THE HEARTIEST FASHION IN EVERY LAWFUL AND LEGITIMATE METHOD OF DOING ITS WORK. HE ALSO INTENDS TO SEE THAT THE MOST VIGOROUS CARE IS EXERCISED TO DETECT AND PREVENT ANY CRUELTY OR BRUTALITY AND THAT MEN WHO ARE GUILTY THEREOF ARE PUNISHED. GREAT AS THE PROVOCATION HAS BEEN . . . NOTHING CAN JUSTIFY . . . THE USE OF TORTURE OR INHUMAN CONDUCT OF ANY KIND ON THE PART OF THE AMERICAN ARMY.
His name was Theodore Roosevelt.
D’Alemberte summarizes the facts that led to the first American case in which waterboarding was recognized and prosecuted as a crime. It’s one of the half dozen precedents that Administration apologists from John Yoo to Michael Mukasey have conveniently “forgotten” as they tell us that the law concerning waterboarding is “unclear.”
This message from the president of the United States was sent not to members of the American military dealing with insurgents in Iraq but to an earlier Army dealing with insurgents in the Philippines approximately a century ago. Even without the characteristic capitalization of cablegrams sent during President Theodore Roosevelt’s time, the strong statement of outrage over torture and high regard for American values comes through. Today there is no similar message, either from the president or from the new attorney general. This is sad.
Teddy Roosevelt had to deal with the mistreatment of civilians by U.S. troops who were fighting an insurgency. American soldiers, who occupied the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, learned a technique of punishment and interrogation from the Spanish that they called ”the water cure.” Along with other violence toward civilians, the U.S. soldiers used the technique liberally. Edmund Morris’ biography Theodore Rex quotes the official report’s description of that ”cure”:
“A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rife barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin . . . is simply thrust into his jaws . . . and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose . . . until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious. . . . His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.”
This may be the first use by American soldiers of what we now call “waterboarding,”
which has surfaced in so many different places and come under so much scrutiny. It has been widely reported that some U.S. troops and ”other government agencies” have used this technique, as well as other inhumane and degrading practices that run counter to international law principles prohibiting inhumane treatment of detainees. Even in the face of evidence of such abuse, the Bush administration has given us repeated assurances that U.S. personnel do not torture. We are also told they do not rape and kill innocent people, and yet rapes and killings have taken place without a condemnation that matches the force of Roosevelt’s.
At Roosevelt’s insistence, military men implicated in torture and abuse, including even those of high rank, were prosecuted and sanctioned.
Teddy Roosevelt was right. What we urgently need now is accountability for the crimes which have been committed, including accountability from Roosevelt’s morally and criminally compromised successor in office.