Tribunals Get Their Star Kangaroo
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, September 7, 2006
Clever. President Bush wants to try “enemy combatants” as they would have been tried in Stalinist courts circa 1938—without the right to hear the evidence against them, with limited rights to lawyers, without applying Geneva Conventions or constitutional standards of due process. The Supreme Court last June ruled these standards somewhere beneath reason if not contempt, prompting the president to go to Congress, spiked helmet in hand, begging for a law explicitly granting him the authority to be authoritarian. Politically, it’s a tough sell. It’s doubtful whether any of the 450-some Guantanamo prisoners still clanging about that Cuban paradise ever posed more than an imaginary threat. Slews of those released from there proved to be shepherds, taxi drivers, old dolts and young turks who happened to be at the wrong place at the right time for thugs who kidnapped them and sold them to American authorities thinking every Afghan or Pakistani or Saudi with half a beard and a wandering eye a worse terrorist than a Calvinist preacher. The courts, in any case, are no longer buying the Bush junta’s line that these are the “worst of the worst,” in Dick Cheney’s cheesy words, or that they’re worth a sacrifice of due process on an altar of unverifiable fictions. So what does Bush do? He transfers to Guantanamo 14 prisoners formerly held in the CIA’s secret “black sites” in Romania and Poland and North Africa to Guantanamo, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged (a word the American press prefers to ignore in this case) mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot. Well now. With Khalid Mohammed in there, how could any congressman argue against writing the harshest law possible to try these guys? How could congressman not line up to be first to sponsor such a law? Who would object? This is 9/11’s engineer, transferred here as if by chance on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. What timing. What cleverness. What luck (for the script-writers). Anyone calling for due process when it comes to Khalid Mohammed would be deemed mad. Treasonous. Tom Cruisish. Bush knows it. It’s a brilliant move on Bush’s part, and yet a move as pathetic as any on his rap sheet of pathetic moves in this surreal and non–performing war on terror. Let’s count the ways.
To begin with, Bush has paradoxically legitimized those illegal black sites even as he alleged to be emptying them. By revealing them in a White House speech from the East Room, Bush is granting them the mantle of presidential authority, like his discussions of the NSA’s spying on Americans or his administration’s spying on international transactions (once the New York Times and the Washington Post did the honors of uncorking those geysers of lawbreaking). Black sites thus become part of his established asymmetrical little war. Those who oppose him are just naïve ignoramuses who don’t know what it takes. And by legitimizing the black sites, it diminishes their mystery, morphs them into something vaguely conventional, less worthy of “gotcha” news reports. At least that’s Bush’s Rovian hope.
But the focus should remain on those black sites whence these 14 men were plucked. Bush was still extolling their value in his latest in that series of Death-of-a-Salesman speeches elegizing his war: “[A]s more high-ranking terrorists are captured,” he said on Wednesday, “the need to obtain intelligence from them will remain critical—and having a CIA program for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting life-saving information.” A nifty little euphemism, that need to obtain intelligence from them and its less coy program for questioning terrorists. In other words, the torture program for which Bush claims an exemption from anti-torture and humiliation limitations will continue, as will the rendition program that sends inmates to prisons in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where their anal cavities and fingernails can more freely be turned into tortuous black sites of their own. Here, uncut, is Bush’s classic justification of torture at American hands as he rattled it off in his disingenuous tones of innocence on Wednesday, ratified by his own “Justice” Department; he’s referring to the suspected al-Qaeda operative known as abu Zubayda:
We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.
Chilled yet? Have yourself a little Chardonay. What’s being missed about Khalid Mohhammad’s transfer to Guantanamo is that he’s finished as a CIA asset. He’s been waterboarded to death. There’s nothing of value he can give his captors, and (apparently) there was nothing much of value that he did give them, other than history, although Bush claims the guy “helped us stop another planned attack on the United States.” Something about 17 South Asians planning plane attacks or others planning anthrax attacks—the sort of plots we’ve been hearing plenty about lately, including the supposed 9/11-like plot from Britain to blow ten airliners out of the sky: intercepted chatter of some wild-goose plans immediately turned into imminence and certainty. But ask for hard evidence and you get the usual blank stares and accusations of naiveté. Of course the Bush junta doesn’t want these cases in open court. Those stories of alleged plots and sleeper cells and close-call terrorism would fall apart at the first cross-exam by a third-year law student. It’ll never get to that point. Khalid Mohammed may be finished, but as a poster-boy for Bush’s kangaroo tribunals, Mohammed’s political value is soaring. Guantanamo is his Playboy Mansion.
In sum, Bush’s Wednesday speech was a blueprint for selective totalitarianism: trust me, he said, you need this suspension of due process like you’ve needed your suspension from disbelief these last five years. Trust is the last thing he’s earned, whether he’s claiming to have stopped terrorist attacks or to have extracted information from these “worst of the worst.” Trusting him is what’s gotten us to this bleak point. Trusting him is an endorsement of defeat by our own hands. Trusting him is a suicide pact. And yet trust is exactly what this series of speeches is aiming to seduce out of the American public, eight weeks before Election Day. Judging from the American public’s tendency to self-destruct, it may just work.