Q&A: Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith, attorney for Guantanamo detainees and director of Reprieve, on what Bush, the Gestapo, and the Spanish Inquisition have in common.


Mother Jones: Of all the things that the Bush administration leaves behind, what will be the hardest to fix?

Clive Stafford Smith: The hardest to fix will be the reservoir of hatred that’s built up toward America. As of September 12, 2001, there was the largest reservoir of good will that the United States has ever known around the world. George Bush has managed to drain all of that through the actions epitomized by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, which unfortunately leaves the United States now more unpopular than it has ever been, which is very sad.

MJ: Do you think that’s irreparable?

CSS: Nothing’s irreparable. I mean, history lasts more than the eight years that George Bush has been president. It’s just going to take an enormous amount of work to recoup even to where we once were, let alone to where we’d like to be.

MJ: What will be the easiest thing to fix?

CSS: The easiest thing is to inaugurate a different president. That’s going to happen on January 19. And I have a countdown calendar, which my mother, who has voted conservative for her entire life, gave to me. It only goes to show how the world is looking forward to these things.

MJ: What has been the president’s most notable policy failure?

CSS: I’d be much harder pressed to identify the president’s most notable policy achievement. In terms of policy failures we could go on for many hours. But I don’t think you can sink lower than starting the war in Iraq or reintroducing torture into the American lexicon.

His administration has actively supported a number of actions that they like to give euphemistic titles to. One of the hobbies I have is to look up the methods of enhanced interrogation techniques that they talk about and see what the Spanish Inquisition used to call them. So, to give you just one example, take waterboarding. The Bush administration says it’s not torture and admits that they’ve used it. They call it enhanced interrogation techniques. The Spanish Inquisition, which was a little more honest about these things, called it tortura del agua, as in water torture, and they used to do it 500 years ago. I think that says it all. Mind you, I will say that the Gestapo used the same technique. I can’t pronounce the German words properly, but they called it erhöhte Befragungtechniken, which means “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That is fairly tragic.

MJ: Which problem created by the administration most urgently needs to be addressed?

CSS: Well, I believe the most urgent one is to reinstitute the rule of law. That’s what America has been famous for for 200 years. I think if Europe has something that it should copy immediately from the United States it is the Constitution. And yet the Bush administration has done everything it can to eviscerate one of the pearls in the American crown. So reestablishing habeas would be number one for me.

MJ: Which lesson about leadership should the next president glean from the past eight years?

CSS: The first lesson is to read history books, because if ever there were a president who has suffered from the aphorism “If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” that’s George Bush. I mean, you don’t need to go further than the fact that he borrowed from the Spanish Inquisition to figure that one out. Almost every mistake he’s made, particularly in foreign policy, has been a copycat of mistakes made in recent and more distant history.

MJ: What advice would you give to the next president about how to undo what Bush has done?

CSS: I think the only thing the president has to do is to have a moral compass and then follow it. If you have an ideal, then life is actually quite simple, and you can do the right thing much easier than people pretend.

MJ: What will Bush’s legacy be in 50 years?

CSS: He won’t have a legacy in 50 years. He will be long since forgotten and quite frankly that’s fortunate for the world. The only things I hope are remembered are the mistakes he made so that we don’t repeat them.

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