The Moral Slide
We should be alarmed at the state of the world when the “good guys” in the battle that is currently going on inside the US about the treatment of “high value” terrorism suspects argue for corrective measures to the current system that still fall short of the law.
Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a bill that would provide “fair” trials and meet the demands of the US Supreme Court, which has opposed the measures adopted by President Bush. In short, part of Bush’s plan included a narrow definition of the Geneva Convention—the only way, Bush argues (quite erroneously), that the CIA could obtain the valuable information it needs to combat terrorism.
If it were to become practice, the bill would (a) require that defendants have access to the classified “evidence” against them, (b) limit the use of hearsay “evidence,” and (c) restrict the use of “evidence” obtained by coercion.
The two key words in the paragraph above are “limit” and “restrict.” It has long been demonstrated that hearsay is a terrible tool to use in the world of intelligence. Rumors intelligence (RUMINT) will take analysts down multiple paths that had better remain unexplored. Hearsay isn’t based on provable facts; hearsay is innuendo, slander and fabrication. RUMINT collects myths and pieces of information that, when scrutinized, often prove to be motivated by personal hatreds resulting in payback. A source will provide incriminating “evidence” against an individual because of a quarrel—money owned, a fight for leadership within a community, women. By saying that it will “limit” the use of hearsay “evidence,” the bill still leaves the door open to its use, and it will be used whenever the information fits the model that the analysts are seeking.
The second and more damaging word, restrict, pertains to the use of “evidence” obtained through coercion or, more precisely, torture. It is here, mostly, that the moral slide that has occurred in the US and other countries is expressed at its fullest, for while the individuals behind the proposed bill seem to have taken the moral high ground, their proposal still leaves room for some use of torture, which goes against not only the Geneva Convention but the US Constitution as well. Whether it occurs while detainees are in US custody or abroad, the Convention Against Torture—to which the US must adhere as it has been signed by and therefore became law in the US (as per federal statute 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A)—states that “the use of torture and other forms of physical and psychological coercion against any detainee to extract confessions of intelligence related information is a violation of international humanitarian law and is prohibited.” The statute adds that “according to the Third (Art. 17, 87, 99) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (Art. 5, 31, 32), evidence that has been obtained through coercion can never be used…”
This is how the moral slide in the fight against terrorism has occurred. We have reached a point, five years after the incident that sparked the whole thing, where the legal and moral battles are no longer about the law—which doesn’t restrict or limit but bans—but about how often and to what degree we are allowed to break the law. It’s as if we’ve taken two steps back and must now fight with all we have so that we can take but one step forward. As decision-makers in Washington, London and Ottawa argue over these matters, citizens are now subjected to the worst-case scenario (greatly inflated powers of the executive and intelligence agencies) and the not-as-bad scenario (selective use of unlawful methods).
In other words, even those who now take the moral high ground are battling for principles that do not meet the benchmark of legality and morality. Alarming indeed.