Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

April 15, 2013

Human Rights: Wiping Away the Smirk

By David K. Shipler

            It used to be sadly comical when Russia took a holier-than-thou posture on human rights. But the United States has fallen so far that Americans don’t get to smirk much anymore. In the recent tit-for-tat over rights abusers who are being declared unwelcome in each other’s countries, at least three of the former top U.S. officials fingered by the Russians are, in fact, true violators of basic liberties. They have been branded legitimately. In the aftermath of today’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, it is worth remembering how easy it is, in the face of such tragedy, to deviate from the rule of law.
            The three are David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s legal counsel, who evaded the law and the Constitution to engineer torture and illegal surveillance; John Yoo, who wrote infamous memos for Bush’s Justice Department defining torture so narrowly as to give the CIA practically a free hand; and Geoffrey D. Miller, who as an army major general commanded both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, where suspects were abused and humiliated, generating iconic photographs.
            They are among the eighteen Americans listed by Russia.
The rest include another Guantanamo commander and an array of prosecutors, investigators, and a federal judge who seem to have performed properly in drug and weapons cases against several Russians. Moscow had to overreach to get the total up to eighteen, in retaliation for the eighteen Russians the U.S. banned for their alleged involvement in the detention and prison death of a Russian lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky, 37, who had been arrested as he was looking into a client’s embezzling accusation against Russian officials.
            The latest bannings were issued under the so-called Magnitsky Act, passed overwhelmingly by Congress last year to deny visas to Russians implicated in rights violations and to freeze any assets they might hold in the U.S. It was a gratuitous piece of legislation, and a redundant one, since immigration law already gave the government broad power to restrict entry, which had been used quietly after Magnitsky’s death to bar visas for dozens of Russian officials thought to be involved. Russia didn’t react then. Once the new law was signed by President Obama, however, Moscow retaliated dramatically by prohibiting U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.
            Now comes the next round of action and reaction. An orchestrated uproar had been generated in Russia over the drug and weapons cases investigated and prosecuted by most of the eighteen Americans now banned. It was an old tactic, familiar in Soviet times: Moscow was insulted by American accusations—in this instance about the politicization of the Russian criminal justice system—and so turned the charges around to accuse the U.S. of doing the same or worse.
The main cause celebre was Viktor Bout, an international arms trafficker caught in a federal undercover operation, one of those stings that use agents or informers to create a fictitious plot and then nab the willing, sometimes hapless, would-be participant. The method can border on entrapment, but claiming entrapment works only if the accused can show that he had no “predisposition” to commit the crime.
Bout displayed no lack of predisposition. The feds had been after him for a long time for sending weapons to Rwanda, Angola, and the Congo; he faced sanctions by the United Nations. And according to the Justice Department’s sentencing memo after his conviction, Bout jumped at “a lucrative, long-term business opportunity” when the Drug Enforcement Agency sent informants to pose as representatives of FARC, the Colombian guerrilla movement. They requested and he arranged to “provide a breathtaking arsenal of weapons” the government said, “including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine-guns, and sniper rifles—10 million rounds of ammunition, and five tons of plastic explosives,” plus “a team of instructors” and “advice on how to launder the FARC’s drug-derived cash.” He suggested amounts and types of weapons far beyond the informants’ requests. In labeling as rights violators the federal agents and prosecutors who nailed him, Russia trespasses into the preposterous.
Addington, Yoo, and Miller are another story, though. They deserve the label. They need to be remembered, for as the country picks itself up after the Boston blasts, and as investigators untangle the crime, there will again be temptations to take shortcuts past legal and ethical values.
Oddly enough, those three men now banned from Russia displayed some of the behavior that characterized Soviet officials. One was to manipulate the law so that it supported policy, rather than to adjust policy so that it conformed with the law. This was a hallmark of Soviet thinking, and Addington exemplified the mindset in the Bush administration.
He made no secret of his impatience with legal restrictions, particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required judges to approve clandestine warrants for monitoring communications by agents of foreign powers. “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court,” Addington told Jack Goldsmith, a conservative Justice Department official who seemed stunned by Addington’s contempt for the law.
Yoo and Addington also rationalized a proposal to have the army, rather than the FBI, arrest a group of young men in Buffalo, New York, for terrorism and hold them in military custody. Cheney put the plan to Bush, who mercifully rejected it.
General Miller had another unsavory role. Besides presiding over the well photographed abuses at Abu Ghraib, he distinguished himself as commander of Guantanamo by signing on to suspicions about a Muslim chaplain, Captain James Yee, whose only crimes appeared to be his ability to speak Arabic, to explain Islamic tenets and customs to prison staff, and to urge humane treatment of prisoners. Yee came under the same shadow as Lev Kopelev, a Soviet Army officer who spoke German and tried to stop advancing Soviet troops from raping and looting toward the end of World War II. Both Yee and Kopelev were arrested on trumped up charges. The difference was that Yee spent 76 days in the brig, shackled in solitary confinement, before the charges were dropped, and Kopelev spent nine years in the Gulag.
This is obviously no small difference, and it marks the enormous chasm between the United States and Russia—even the freer Russia that exists today. But the similarities are striking among officials with limited experience of the world, whose narrow patriotism fosters suspicion against those who speak the enemy’s language, know his customs, or respect his human rights.
Inadvertently, and on this sad day, Russia reminds us how good it used to feel to be holier than thou. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Dave, for detailing the pedigrees of these individuals, which seem to exemplify "self righteous individualism", compared with the paranoid individualism you wrote about in your previous article.

    What is disheartening is the apparent purpose, focus, and robust vigor with which these individuals and their respective governments accomplished these abuses. The dollars involved must be staggering. These individuals don't even qualify for the rogue/villian that American audiences have historically loved to idolize in movies and literature and, yes, homeland security. They are dark and dirty.

    After WWII our country applied purpose, focus, and robust vigor to helping others with programs like the Marshall Plan and the Food for Peace Program (PL480). Our heads were held high be those we were helping; no smirking was required. I'd bet the $$$ we spent overall on those programs would turn out to be only a fraction of what has gone down the proverbial drain in the abuses you describe. Our leaders in Washington seem mesmerized by clandestine activities rather than seeing the big picture of hunger, poverty, and decaying infrastructure in our own country. We need a domestic Marshall Plan and Food For Peace program for our national wellbeing. Until then we cannot smirk or hold our heads up in our own country.