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Rebutting the “torture narrative”

Posted by Richard on July 17, 2008

Former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith testified yesterday before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Power Line posted his opening statement in its entirety. If you think you know all about the Bush Administration's policy decisions regarding enemy combatants and the Geneva Conventions — especially if your information is based directly or indirectly on the allegations of Philippe Sands — you really should read this. Here's a bit from the beginning:

The history of war-on-terrorism detainee policy goes back nearly seven years. It involves many officials and both the law and the facts are enormously complex. Some critics of the administration have simplified and twisted that history into what has been called the “torture narrative,” which centers on the unproven allegation that top-level administration officials sanctioned or encouraged abuse and torture of detainees.

The “torture narrative” is grounded in the claim that the administration’s top leaders, including those at the Defense Department, were contemptuous of the Geneva Convention (which I refer to here as simply “Geneva.”) The claim is false, however. It is easy to grasp the political purposes of the “torture narrative” and to see why it is promoted. But these hearings are an opportunity to check the record – and the record refutes the “torture narrative”.

The book by Phillipe Sands is an important prop for that false narrative. Central to the book is its story about me and my work on the Geneva Convention. Though I’m not an authority on many points in Sands’s book, I do know that what he writes about me is fundamentally inaccurate – false not just in its detail, but in its essence. Sands builds that story, first, on the accusation that I was hostile to Geneva and, second, on the assertion that I devised the argument that detainees at GTMO should not receive any protections under Geneva – in particular, any protections under common Article 3. But the facts are (1) that I strongly championed a policy of respect for Geneva and (2) that I did not recommend that the President set aside common Article 3.

I will briefly review my role in this matter and then discuss Sands’s misreporting. As it becomes clear that the Sands book is not rigorous scholarship or reliable history, members of Congress and others may be persuaded to approach the entire “torture narrative” with more skepticism.

Read the whole thing. I think Feith's account hangs together well, seems to make sense, and is quite plausible — none of that proves it's true, of course, but I'm inclined to believe it.

Feith's discussion of the issue of POW status introduced me to something I wasn't aware of: During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. rejected a treaty to amend Geneva called "Protocol 1" because it would have granted POW status to terrorists. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post praised Reagan (uncharacteristically) for this decision. 

Like I said, read the whole thing. Then read something I posted three years ago, They aren't criminal suspects!  

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