Military lawyers speak out against America sponsoring torture

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from the very conservative state of South Carolina, has played against type and shown himself to be one of the most persistently active critics of American-sponsored torture. Indeed, he has displayed remarkable political courage.

Sen. Graham has credentials. He used to be a uniformed lawyer for the Air Force. The New York Times reports (7/28) that, as a result of his insistence, previously classified documents have been released showing that top lawyers from all four branches of the Armed Forces wrote sharp denunciations of the “Bybee memorandum,” a document issued in August 2002 by the Justice Department which defined torture extremely narrowly (restricting the definition exclusively to procedures causing permanent organ damage or death). The Bybee memo stated that President Bush could ignore domestic and international bans on torture because of the “special character of the war on terrorism.”

The JAGs (Judge Advocates General) from all four services protested in terms like this:

• Several of the more extreme interrogation practices allowed by the Bybee memo “amount to violations of domestic criminal law” as well as military law.

• Aggressive interrogation techniques would endanger American soldiers taken prisoner and also diminish the country’s standing as a leader on the “moral high road” with regard to the laws of war.

• The approach recommended by the Justice Department in the Bybee memo “will open us up to criticism that the US is a law unto itself.”

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld approved the Bybee memo in December 2002. In April 2003, after learning of the uniformed lawyers’ “vigorous and detailed dissents,” he made a decision to limit the permitted interrogation techniques.

(Neil A. Lewis, “Military’s Opposition to Harsh Interrogation Is Outlined,” New York Times 7/28/05)

A sidebar to this matter is the character of Jay S. Bybee, the head of the office of legal counsel at the Justice Department. He has been described as mild-mannered and a lover of domestic pursuits, the most unlikely person in the world to sign an official memorandum authorizing torture by an American presidential administration. But this should not surprise us. Unredeemed human nature is by definition twisted, distorted, “bent.” That is why the Christian faith calls us to vigilance without ceasing against these tendencies in others and in ourselves.

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