A Day of E-Papering the Record on Detainee Rights
"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Gen. Colin L. Powell wrote yesterday in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the political battle is joined again over how to treat terror detainees both before and during their military trials. "To redefine" more narrowly Article III of the Geneva Conventions (as the Bush Administration seeks) "would add to those doubts." Powell wrote in a three-paragraph note made public today. "Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk." Case closed, right? After all, if Gen. Powell thinks the Administration's end-run around the Geneva Conventions is a bad idea, and since even the current crop at this White House can't "Swift Boat" Powell, his brief letter seals the deal for opponents of the measure, right?
But wait. The General's letter wasn't the only one making the rounds today. In fact, the flurry of formal posturing reminds me of my lazy, hazy, crazy days as a practicing lawyer. We are witnessing a "papering of the record"-- by the way, the legal world needs a new phrase to incorporate the electronic means of accomplishing this feat-- as "CYA" and "to supplement the record" emails are flying back and forth among the highest levels of government. It's a sure sign that the showdown (at least for this round pending Supreme Court review) is truly at hand between the White House and its Congressional opponents over what our laws should say about how we treat these detainees, from capture through trial.
There is the Powell Letter. There is a letter from Gen. Powell's successor, Condoleeza Rice, to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, in which the Secretary of State assures the powerful Senate leader that the proposed change to federal law would strengthen, not weaken, the country's commitment to the Geneva Conventions (this, remember, from an Administration that sought in federal court to diminish the legal import of the Conventions).
There is a letter from some military lawyers to Duncan Hunter, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, essentially making sure he knows that they are all for the change in the law. And lest they be forgotten as the minority party there is a letter from a few dozen House Democrats warning the Justice Department that it shouldn't try "to amend the War Crimes Act of 1996 to shield U.S. personnel who have violated the Geneva Conventions. Creating exemptions from international laws governing the treatment of prisoners during wartime seriously endangers our troops abroad, as well as Foreign Service officers and other Americans living abroad."
It's nice that they all want to be pen-pals. I just hope they get it right this time.
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