White House Ethics Lesson

From the Hope Springs Eternal Department

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We are at — for the time being at least — the bargain-basement, fire-sale moment in Bush administration fortunes. The President’s approval ratings have entered something close to free-fall; as the least popular U.S. president in Latin American history, he was harried across the Southern continent last week by crowds of protestors and various heads of state who insisted on beginning formal dinners after his normal bedtime; his Vice President is beleaguered; the Vice-Presidential chief of staff indicted; Karl Rove, the President’s “architect,” under investigation; Tom DeLay part-way down the tubes; Social Security “reform” crumpled in the corner; Senate Majority Leader Frist blindsided by a one-eyed trust; White House counsel Harriet Miers shot down by trusted allies; a seamy lobbying scandal spreading fast; the President coattail-less in Virginia; and uppity Republican Senators insisting on a no-torture amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill — and that’s just where the list begins.

The question for Washington insiders is this: Has the administration reached a “tipping point”? After all these dark months, is there a gleam of light at tunnel’s end? As it happens, the first faint glow may have appeared in a story, Pentagon Plans Tighter Control of Interrogation, on the front page of my morning New York Times. Reporters Eric Schmitt and Tim Golden inform us that the Pentagon has suddenly approved a “policy directive governing interrogations as part of an effort to tighten controls over the questioning of terror suspects and other prisoners by American soldiers” — a decision that will “allow the Army to issue a long-delayed field manual for interrogators that is supposed to incorporate the lessons gleaned from the prisoner-abuse scandals last year.”

Some might imagine that, in its timing, a directive issued under the pressure of Vice President Cheney’s image-cracking campaign to derail any Geneva Convention-style language in Pentagon documents, fight off Senator McCain’s anti-torture amendment, and (at the very least) retain a torture exemption for the CIA might have been purely cosmetic. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman insisted otherwise to the Times, and in this case the Pentagon should be given the benefit of the doubt.

After all, it takes time to “glean” hard lessons from complex reality, especially when your top officials are out of the information loop. Striking evidence of this came only the other day from Knight Ridder columnist Joseph Galloway (awarded a bronze star for his service in Vietnam), who has regularly attacked Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for his handling of the war in Iraq. Invited to lunch with the Donald and various generals, Galloway found himself besieged by a Pentagon chief eager to get at the hidden truth of things. Rumsfeld almost immediately confronted him. “I’m not hearing anything like the things you are writing about,” he told the columnist. What he wanted to know was “why he himself wasn’t hearing all the negative stuff about the lack of progress in Iraq and the military grumblings that the writer was picking up on.” Those of us outside Washington’s Beltway world are at a disadvantage in gauging the depth of Rumsfeld’s problems because we can read about “lack of progress in Iraq” any day of the week. Not so him.

It’s not surprising then that “lessons gleaned” from the twelve official investigations the Pentagon has launched into the Abu Ghraib scandal and the abuse of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantanamo were slow to rise to the highest levels of government. Remember, these investigations also represented a documentary traffic jam of monumental proportions, leaving the busy Rumsfeld with the near-impossible task of reading thousands upon thousands of pages of none-too-relaxing reports.

Fortunately, the Army handbook will now be published, filled to the brim with the complex lessons of these last grim years. Rumor has it that the Pentagon will soon announce a new title for it, meant to summarize those lessons: The Don’t Torture, Don’t Murder, Don’t Maim, Don’t Humiliate Army Field Manual. Unfortunately, according to Schmitt and Golden, when it comes to another key Pentagon “major detention-policy document? Dick Cheney’s new chief of staff, David S. Addington, had continued to press senior Pentagon officials to eliminate language from the Geneva Conventions prohibiting ?cruel,’ ?humiliating,’ and ?degrading’ treatment.” If all goes well, by early 2007 at the latest, this crucial final debate on the subject will rise to Rumsfeld’s consciousness, resulting in another fruitful round of “lessons gleaned.”

In the meantime, a brighter spark of hope has flickered on the administration horizon. In a modestly played story last week, many newspapers reported a remarkable development. Here’s how the Reuters version began:

“White House officials will be required to attend briefings next week on ethics and the handling of classified information after the indictment last week of a senior official in the CIA leak probe, according to a memo released on Saturday. The White House counsel’s office will conduct a series of presentations on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for those aides with security clearances. ?Your attendance at one of these sessions is mandatory,’ said a memo to White House staff from White House counsel Harriet Miers.”

The Washington Post added that the decision to offer an ethics lesson came from the President himself: “A senior aide said Bush decided to mandate the ethics course during private meetings last weekend with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and counsel Harriet Miers. Miers’s office will conduct the ethics briefings? Rove is among those aides who must attend. ?There will be no exceptions,’ the memo states.” And this will evidently be only the first of a series of Presidential steps to bring honor and honesty back to the White House.

Cynics might call this a classic case of closing the barn doors after most of the cows had been let out (and slaughtered) and only those with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (that’s Mad Cow Disease to you) remained inside. But better informed observers suspect that this is another case of “lessons gleaned.” Unfortunately, old habits die hard and so ethics in the White House is being treated in a highly secretive manner. Short of a thoroughly unethical leaker, the rest of us will, sadly, never benefit from the presentations of the White House Counsel’s office.

Still, based on the public record and a knowledge of the cast of characters, a reasonable guesstimate can be made about the ethical questions likely to be raised and the lessons likely to be gleaned this week. After all, overseeing these lessons will be sometime lawyer (when she remembers to pay her Bar dues), failed Supreme Court nominee, exemplary writer of birthday cards, and White House Counsel Harriet (“You are the best governor ever!”) Miers, a measured and thoughtful woman if ever you met one. And here are some of the crucial questions she is almost sure to raise — and the kinds of practical, ethically sound answers that this particular White House might be happy with.

1. Question: Is it ethical to go over to “the dark side” and use “any means at our disposal” in the President’s War on Terrorism, as our Vice President suggested on September 16, 2001? Answer: This one is simple. Yes. It was settled long ago by no less an authority than Cole Porter when he wrote his famous song, “Anything Goes.” (“The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today/And black’s white today and day’s night today?”)

2. Question: If you are creating a global network of secret prisons in which “anything goes” and you attack a senator for suggesting that it is a “gulag,” is it then ethical to situate some of your secret detention facilities in Eastern European “compounds” from the former Soviet Union’s gulag? Answer: There is nothing unethical about this, though it may have been foolish from a public relations standpoint. (Mitigating circumstance: Eastern Europe is now a bustling place without many unused facilities. Even the former concentration camp at Auschwitz is a well-used tourist attraction!) Unethical, however, is the leaking of information about these perfectly ethical secret facilities. On this Senate Majority Leader Frist and other Republicans are already on the ethical job of hunting down the leaking dogs who let this news out and embarrassed our President.

3. Question: Was it unethical for President Bush not to fire Karl Rove on discovering that he had leaked information on CIA agent Valerie Plame. Answer: On September 30, 2003, the President urged anyone in his administration with information about the Plame leak to “come forward”. Then, on June 10, 2004, he pledged that any staff member who leaked her name would be “fired.” If, by “fired,” the President actually meant dismissed from his position, then his behavior would be unethical. However, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, discharged from a position is only the eighth meaning of the word “fire,” preceded by, among other definitions, “to bake in a kiln,” “to dry by heating,” and “to arouse the emotions of.” This is admittedly a muddy area (as baking in a kiln might imply), a what “is is” problem on which no one should rush to ethical judgment.

4. Question: Is it ethical to exempt the CIA from a ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment? Answer: Of the four questions at hand, the first two are slam-dunks; the third, somewhat murkier, ethically speaking. However, this one — as Miers will undoubtedly point out — is by far the most complex and daunting of them all. She’s certain to start by dismissing John McCain’s so-called expertise on the matter. Having been tortured himself, he is obviously far too involved to have any perspective on this. On the other hand, while in Panama, the President grasped the essential ethical conundrum and stated it in the following way: “We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do to that effort, to that end, in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.” In other words — a point also made by the Vice President — it is not only critical but ethically aboveboard to exempt the CIA from any torture ban exactly because we don’t torture, so it really doesn’t matter if the Agency is exempt as long as it is; otherwise, our enemies might know that we won’t torture them, which, as the President said, we won’t; and then we’ll have given away the interrogation game — in which case we might have to torture them to reestablish our anti-torture position. In other words, the only humane and ethical stance available to the United States government is to insist on a torture exemption, while those who oppose such an exemption are, in reality, unethically promoting torture.

Questions for subsequent presentations are likely to include:

Is it ethical to insist that a superpatriotic energy corporation, once run by a high official of the U.S. government, suffer grievous losses by refunding the money from gross overcharges and shoddy work in Iraq?

Is it an ethical curve ball for Secretary of State Condoleezza (“Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” ) Rice to meet former exile and famed disseminator of prewar dis- and misinformation, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad (“cakewalk”) Chalabi on his visit to Washington? (Rumor has it that this part of the presentation will feature guest speaker Judy Miller of the New York Times.)

Is it ethical to launch a war of aggression if we’re the ones doing it and it’s labeled a “preventive war”?

It is a sad fact of presidential history that recent two-term administrations have invariably become entrapped in cover-ups for acts of dubious legality. One ethical conclusion Miers reportedly expects to pass on to White House staffers in the course of her three-day ethical tour de force concerns exactly this. Her conclusion — and the President’s as well — from a study of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton second terms is that there is nothing unethical about crime, only about botched cover-ups. As National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put the matter recently, “Some people say that the test of your principles [is] what you do when no one’s looking.”

On the one essential question that obsesses Washington insiders — How will we know for sure if this administration doesn’t hit that tipping point, doesn’t turn that second-term corner, never sees the light at tunnel’s end? — there is now agreement. We’ll know when the President takes the spongiform bull by the horns, and mandates a Miers-inspired ethics course for himself and his Vice President.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.


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