Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gillespie: Senator Tom Harkin Calls for Release of Torture Photos

Senator Tom Harkin deserves a lot of credit for taking the stand he has on the torture photos, in my opinion. The senator is Catholic, and I have come to realize that Catholics, perhaps more than some other denominations, seem to understand that torture is

simply not an issue on which we can be silent.

Perhaps the finest book about the military and war that I've read over the years is Soldier, a memoir by Lt. Col. Anthony B. Herbert, a career U.S. Army officer who served in Korea and in Vietnam. Herbert, too, is Catholic, and his is a remarkable book about an equally remarkable life. Entering the Army before he was legally old enough, Herbert saw action as an enlisted man in Korea. After Korea, he left the Army to earn a BA in English and later a Masters in Psychology. He returned to the Army as an officer and during the Vietnam war commanded a line battalion of the 173rd Infantry Brigade, the outfit my childhood friend Philip Reeder (1949-1968) served and died in, too, too young. Herbert turned his battalion into one of the highest rated combat units of the war. But he witnessed torture in Vietnam, and he steadfastly refused to turn a blind eye to those crimes. Speaking out against the war and against torture while still in uniform, Herbert paid a high price for his efforts, sacrificing his very promising military career and a great deal more.

Herbert's story left me wondering what would cause a man who was so deeply dedicated to the U.S. military to make that kind of sacrifice. It was several years before I found an answer to that question one day while reading something about Mary Karr, author of the blockbuster best-selling memoir The Liar's Club. Though I can't recall ever having met Karr, we both grew up in Southeast Texas, in towns not 15 miles apart, as contemporaries, and later left the South and studied writing in various places including Cambridge, MA. Our experiences are similar in other ways, too. After a "lifetime of undiluted agnosticism," Karr converted to Catholicism in 1996. She has talked of the experiences that led her to a place to practice her faith. As I read an interview in which Karr spoke about those experiences, I came across this short, memorable paragraph: "A lot of things appeal to me about a lot of religions. I would have thought I was going to end up Episcopalian, but the fact that there wasn't a body on the cross was too subtle for me. And the carnality of the [Catholic] Church really drew me--that there is a body on the cross, that we are hunks of meat."

As I read those words, I suddenly understood why Anthony Herbert had sacrificed his military career and why Catholics, perhaps more often than those of some other Christian faith traditions, seem to understand, at great depth, the issue of torture.

"There is a body on the cross."

As it happens I'm not Catholic, but I think we all need to support Sen. Harkin on this issue.

Sen. Tom Harkin Calls for Release of Torture Photos

by Michael Gillespie
for The Independent Monitor
5/15/2009 – 1,766 words

Speaking to Iowa Public Radio (IPR) audiences on Thursday, May 14, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) called for President Obama to release to the public photos depicting the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is one time I think I’ll have to disagree with the president. I think the photos should be released,” said Harkin in response to a question put to him by Ben Kieffer, host of IPR’s popular daily public affairs program, The Exchange.

Kieffer had asked Harkin, “Yesterday President Obama declared that he would try to block the court ordered release of photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners. He said this abrupt reversal of his position came out of concern that the pictures would further inflame anti-American opinion and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is your view of the president’s reversal?”

“I think the public has a right to know what was done by government officials. That’s the very basis of our democracy. That’s especially true when it concerns official government policy that was in direct conflict with our most basic values and where laws were broken,” said Harkin. The experienced and influential lawmaker and former Navy pilot served 10 years in the House of Representatives before his election to the Senate in 1984.

“This is one where a lot of the blame has been put on lower ranking military people … I think we need to know, more and more, who authorized this at the highest levels. So, I think these pictures should be put out. We have to tell the world again that one of the good things about America is our transparency, and we will look at things and we will investigate things to find out who did these deeds. So, I disagree with the president on this one,” said Harkin.

Harkin serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee on the Defense Subcommittee and on the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee.

Harkin’s call for President Obama to allow the Department of Justice to release at least 44 additional prisoner abuse photos, as ordered by Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2005, came on the same day that the Appropriations Committee released the "Highlights of FY 2009 Supplemental". The bill totals $91.3 billion. It includes "$73 billion in new non-emergency, discretionary spending authority for the Department of Defense under the Defense Subcommittee’s jurisdiction." The Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee title of the supplemental totals "$6.878 billion to address urgent diplomatic, humanitarian, development and security requirements in countries and regions where U.S. security interests are facing major challenges."

“Do you worry that [Obama] is buckling on this under pressure on this from people like Dick Cheney?” Kieffer asked Harkin.

“I can’t imagine that Dick Cheney could make him buckle ... I just think that he’s probably getting a lot of input from the military and all the others. I don’t know whether [CIA Director] Leon Panetta’s been involved in this or not, I just don’t know, but whatever advice he’s gotten has been wrong, and I dare say the pictures are going to come out. … You can’t keep these under wraps forever. One way or the other, they’re gonna get out. I think the president ought to be forthright and say, ‘You know, what we did was wrong, and those who authorized this ought to be held accountable,’” said Harkin.

Kieffer reminded his listeners of Harkin’s military service and his involvement in an abuse and torture controversy during the Vietnam era, pressing the senator again on the issue of potential risks associated with the release of the photos.

“Senator, you were in the military as a Navy pilot. You flew battle damaged planes from Vietnam and the Philippines to Japan for repair. Later, as an aide on a Congressional visit to a South Vietnamese island, prison island of Con Son in 1970, you photographed so-called ‘tiger cages’ in which political prisoners were being kept, and these pictures you took, some made it to Life magazine. So you certainly know the power of images. Don’t you worry that this will further inflame anti-American opinion around the world as the president argues, that this will endanger our troops when we are, perhaps, on the road to gaining greater goodwill?” asked Kieffer.

Harkin turned the tough question to his advantage, using it as an opportunity to tell his constituents that his position on the controversial issue is one informed by personal experience, thoughtful reflection, and deep conviction.

“Well, interesting you mention that whole ‘tiger cage’ episode. As you know, I was working in the House at the time as a staff member. I was also told not to release those pictures. I was told it was going to damage our troops in Vietnam, it was going to harm our people, our prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Basically, I was really excoriated and told that I shouldn’t release them, but I felt that I had a higher obligation. I had an obligation to those people who were in those prison camps, who were there unjustly, being tortured, put to death. And I felt the United States should not be involved, and I knew, at that point in time, I knew that this was being condoned and actually over—there was oversight by some of our government agencies. And by putting those pictures out, I think that it—all these people released from these prison cells, some of them went on to lead very distinguished lives in Vietnam and here in America. It put an end, at least at that time, to some of the really, I think, illegal things that we were doing in those ‘tiger cages’. So, I’m very sensitive to this. If there are pictures out there, they ought to be made public. These things have to be made public. I feel very strongly about that,” said Harkin.

Harkin’s official web site notes that he “went to Washington in 1969 to join the staff of Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. As a staff member accompanying a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous ‘tiger cage’ cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners—many of them students—were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Despite pressure to suppress his findings, Tom’s photos and eyewitness account were published in Life magazine. As a result, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.

“In 1972, Tom and [his wife] Ruth graduated in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in Washington, D.C. They returned to Iowa, and settled in Ames. Tom worked with Polk County Legal Aid, assisting low-income Iowans who could not afford legal help. Ruth won election as Story County Attorney, becoming the first female elected to this position.”

Kieffer asked again about the political implications of former Vice-President Cheney’s high-profile role in the torture controversy.

“How do you view the ‘front and center’ role of former Vice-President Dick Cheney as the foremost defender of the Bush administration within recent days?” asked Kieffer.

“I just don’t think Dick Cheney has any credibility at all left. Here’s someone who consistently lied, and I use that word in all of its meaning, lied to the American people about Iraq, about Saddam Hussein, about weapons of mass destruction. He is the only vice-president in history who went down to the CIA and inserted himself in CIA operations as the vice-president. So, Cheney, to me, is someone who had a world view, he had a belief in what the world was like, and what our enemies were like, and the real world did not comport with his belief system. Now he wants to continue to say that his belief system trumps everything, whereas the facts and reality are completely different,” said Harkin.

“From a purely partisan perspective as a Democrat you must be happy to see someone like Cheney with such low approval ratings be the public face of the opposition,” said Kieffer.

“Well, when Dick Cheney gets up and denigrates Colin Powell and holds up as the epitome of what a Republican is Rush Limbaugh, I can understand why more and more moderate Republicans are becoming Democrats,” replied Harkin.

Powell, Secretary of State during former President George W. Bush’s first term, endorsed Obama during the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign. Powell’s former Chief-of-Staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, testified on June 18, 2008 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights hearing on torture that well over 100 detainees had died in U.S. custody and that 27 of those deaths had officially been declared to be homicides.

Cheney’s office is widely reported to have been at the center of the Bush administration’s “enhanced” or “harsh interrogation technique” policy. On December 15, 2008, Cheney told ABC News that, “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the [CIA] in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.”

After WWII, the U.S. government tried and convicted Japanese military officers of war crimes for waterboarding prisoners.

On May 10, Cheney told CBS’s Face the Nation that President Obama’s decision to dismantle the Bush administration’s interrogation programs had made the USA more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

In an article published on May 14, Wilkerson, a Republican, wrote, “My investigations have revealed to me--vividly and clearly--that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the Spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering 'the Cheney methods of interrogation', simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.

"What I am saying is that no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009. So, if we are to believe the protestations of Dick Cheney, that Obama's having shut down the 'Cheney interrogation methods' will endanger the nation, what are we to say to Dick Cheney for having endangered the nation for the last four years of his vice presidency?

"Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida. So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee ‘was compliant’ (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, ‘revealed’ such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop. There in fact were no such contacts.”

Funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as the “Global War on Terror” during the Bush administration but re-branded in late March as “Overseas Contingency Operations” by the Obama administration, is dependent upon Appropriations Committee approval.

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