Oath to Uphold the Constitution, Well, at Least Some Parts, But I Choose

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Written by Hazel Weiser

Last spring I assigned a SALT intern to the task of documenting Vice President Dick Cheney’s public admissions that he supported and had authorized the use of torture, specifically in the form of water boarding, on suspects held in the “war on terror,” in the aftermath of the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The intern was skeptical.  She questioned whether this was indeed a “legal” assignment.

World Trade Center

She returned with a short paper outlining the May 21, 2009 speech Cheney had given at the American Enterprise Institute.  In his outspoken rhetoric that escalated after President Obama took office, Cheney criticized the new president and brashly admitted to authorizing the use of water boarding.   “In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.”  Somehow, according to the Vice President, this was not a confession of a war crime.

“The key to any strategy is accurate intelligence, and skilled professionals to get that information in time to use it. In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our Administration gave intelligence officers the tools and lawful authority they needed to gain vital information. We didn’t invent that authority. It is drawn from Article Two of the Constitution. And it was given specificity by the Congress after 9/11, in a Joint Resolution authorizing “all necessary and appropriate force” to protect the American people.”

Cheney claimed that the personnel who conducted the “interviews” with suspects had been trained to apply the techniques and had been given guidelines to ensure that they did not cross the line from toughness to torture.

Cheney also claimed that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary to protect the American people so long as there was a future threat of a terrorist attack.

Taken literally, of course, that would mean forever.

Cheney acknowledged that water boarding had been used on three terrorist suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, although he failed to mention that this interrogation included 183 uses of water boarding in one month in 2003. The interrogation of Abu Zubaydah involved 83 instances of water boarding in 2002.

When the intern returned with her completed assignment, she admitted that this had indeed been a “legal” assignment.  “He’s changing the content and tone of public discussion,” she acknowledged.  “He’s making it sound legitimate that the Bill of Rights are merely relative and don’t apply to everyone, and that he gets to decide which laws and treaties apply and to whom.”

Throughout the Bush administration, elected officials, including the President, Vice President, and members of Congress spoke about “enhanced interrogation” techniques as if there wasn’t a Constitution with a Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions, or a myriad of domestic laws and international human rights treaties to which the United States is a signatory that prohibited cruel and inhumane treatment.  The Bush administration took these discussions out of secret meetings and smack into public discourse in open debate on the floor of the House and Senate and on the Sunday morning talk shows.  This was a monumental change.  Throughout Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (and winner of the National Book Award), Tim Weiner documents the elaborate ruses used by presidents since Harry Truman to hide their orders to use torture, rendition, and assassination.  What’s new is that Bush didn’t try to hide anything!

Once again, we are hearing elected officials demean the Bill of Rights in a discussion involving 911.  Suddenly the First Amendment free exercise and establishment clauses don’t seem to apply to a specific group of Americans—Muslims.  We see the same pattern emerging.  Members of Congress, elected officials who take oaths of office to uphold the Constitution, are making exceptions to the First Amendment, based on the basest of reasoning: a small group of Islamic fundamentalists staged an attack on the United States therefore all Muslims are terrorists.  Just some of the elected officials who are demeaning the First Amendment are: Senator John Cornyn, Rep. Mike McMahon, Rep. Steve Israel, Rep. Tim Bishop, Rep. Eric Cantor, and Senator Mitch McConnell, to name a few.

My own representative Peter King has been mouthing off against Muslims for years now.

And the campaign rhetoric has reached new depths of disgust as the November 2010 midterm elections approach.

This inflammatory rhetoric isn’t limited to Muslims who want to build an Islamic Cultural Center within blocks of the pit that was once the World Trade Center, so called “hallowed ground,” but seems to extend across the country.  Temecula Valley, California and Murfreesboro, Tennessee far from the site of any terrorist attacks are battlegrounds over whether mosques should be built.  Even Sheboygan County, Wisconsin!  So this rhetoric spewing from the mouths of opportunistic politicians and Fox News pundits has nothing to do with hallowed ground, but all out discrimination against Muslims.

More importantly, the controversy over building any mosques anyplace in the United States has fueled beliefs that President Obama is indeed a Muslim!  According to Fox News, one in five believe he is a Muslim, and the entire controversy is perhaps being flamed to keep this number mounting.  The Pew Center for the People and the Press issued a report on August 24 outlining the very conflicted American views on Islam.  It’s worth a read.

After a read like that, the intent to use this issue seems obvious.

There are a few politicians willing to keep the Bill of Rights language and prohibitions center stage—President Obama, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should be commended, but mostly it’s a comedian, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who seems to be getting it right.  Take a look at his Thursday, August 19 opening segment on the development of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.