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Lawyer Scott Horton: “Vice President Cheney is the Man Who Unleashed Torture and Promoted it Within Our Military and Our Intelligence Service”

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The Bush administration is coming under increased criticism for attempting to justify the torture of detainees. Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss reportedly urged Senator John McCain to exempt the CIA from a proposed ban on torture. We speak with lawyer Scott Horton about the VP and torture. [includes rush transcript]

According to the New York Times, Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss met with Senator John McCain last week to urge him to exempt CIA officers from a proposed ban on torture. Three weeks ago the Senate voted 90 to 9 to ban the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of any detainee held by the government.Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said the CIA needed to be exempt because the president needs maximum flexibility in fighting the so-called war on terrorism. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch declared that the U.S. has now become “the only government in the world to claim a legal justification for mistreating prisoners during interrogations.”

  • Scott Horton, chairman of the International Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University where he lectures on international law and international humanitarian law.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Horton, who is the Chair of International Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association, also Adjunct Professor of Law at Columbia University. I wanted to ask you about the issue of torture. The Bush administration is coming under increased criticism for attempting to justify the torture of detainees. According to The New York Times, Vice President Dick Cheney, C.I.A. Director Porter Goss, met with Senator John McCain last week to urge him to exempt C.I.A. officers from a proposed ban on torture. Three weeks ago, the Senate voted 90-9 to ban the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any detainee held by the government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said the C.I.A. needed to be exempt because the President needs maximum flexibility in fighting the so-called war on terrorism. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch declared that the U.S. has now become, quote, “the only government in the world to claim a legal justification for mistreating prisoners during interrogations.”

AMY GOODMAN: And The Washington Post yesterday — an editorial basically said “Vice President for Torture” — was saying that the Vice President is the first top government official to openly advocate for torture. Scott Horton.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I thought that was a very well taken editorial, and it’s interesting that this debate comes back to Vice President Cheney, because, in fact, from all we’ve seen so far, people focus on Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as the source of torture policy within the administration. That’s not really correct. I mean, this began as an initiative of Vice President Cheney’s. And we know going back to 2002, early in the year, he was making the round of the talk shows and talking about the need to use the “dark arts.” He was clearly advocating torture, and he was advocating it within the C.I.A. and later the Defense Department.

Now he has come back and said we have to give the President authority to authorize the use of these highly coercive techniques by the C.I.A. He is saying, 'Alright, the uniformed military we'll exclude from this.’ But, of course, that was the principle issue that was debated in the Senate when Senator McCain put forward his amendment and was quite decisively rejected. I mean, there were 91 senators who opposed it. We only had 90 votes recorded, because Jon Corzine, of course, was campaigning for governor in New Jersey and couldn’t have his vote recorded. But it was an overwhelming victory.

So it shows just an amazing degree of stubbornness on the part of Cheney that he is continuing to push this. And also, the fact that in the midst of this crisis, in which he really sits in the center, that he is devoting so much of his time to the torture issue demonstrates how deeply involved Vice President Cheney is in that issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, we have had so many stories coming out from — beginning with Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo situation and the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and other detention facilities, do you feel that because these stories have come out now in drips and drabs over about a couple of years now that the American public is sort of like tuned out to the enormous scandal that is occurring, in terms of how our military is treating prisoners in this war on terrorism?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, actually, if you look at public opinion polling, you will see that there was a surprisingly high level of acceptance for torture shortly after 9/11, and the situation has reversed. I mean, what we’re seeing right now is a very broad public rejection of torture and rejection of torture under all circumstances. It may be that the voice of moral indignation is a bit lacking. But conceptually, it’s definitely being rejected.

And I would say in connection with the McCain amendment, the really decisive turn here was the fact that a large number of senior retired military officers led by Colin Powell and General Shalikashvili, both former chairmens of the Joint Chief of Staff, but I think altogether about 40 flag officers came forward and began to aggressively advocate this and supported Senator McCain and Senator Graham in the trenches with this measure.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would, Scott Horton, Vice President Cheney, who his whole office is under fierce scrutiny right now, aggressively pursue this, to say the least, extremely controversial — The Washington Post says “unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch to propose to the Congress, legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans.” Why now?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, the charitable explanation would be to say that he really believes coercive techniques are necessary for security. I’m not inclined to be charitable on this issue. I think there’s another reason. The reason is that if this matter were thoroughly investigated, if a commission of inquiry were created, and that measure is pending, that commission is going to show that Vice President Cheney is the man who unleashed torture and promoted it within our military and our intelligence service.

AMY GOODMAN: Why doesn’t it go higher, to Bush? Why do you stop at Cheney?

SCOTT HORTON: We don’t really see any engagement by President Bush on the issue, and I think there — of course, a number of people have looked very closely for it, which is not to say that President Bush doesn’t share blame. He made the decision, he issued presidential findings and orders, and he supported it. And President Bush has continued this mantra, I think repeated by Scott McClellan as recently as two days ago: “We do not torture. We do not do that. We treat people humanely.” Well, in fact, even people around President Bush recognize that that’s just not true.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, yesterday, we interviewed General — well, now Colonel — Janice Karpinski, the commanding general at Abu Ghraib. The only general to be demoted in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. What about that, the fact that — well, where is everyone else in this story? Where is General Miller? Where is General Sanchez? What’s happened to these people?


AMY GOODMAN: And will they eventually be held responsible?

SCOTT HORTON: That’s a good question. In fact, every time the Senate Armed Services Committee meets, you hear Senator Warner, Senator McCain, Senator Graham and all the Democrats asking that very same question. And this affair is not going to be resolved until there is accountability established at the command level. And Brigadier General Karpinski, I won’t use her demoted rank, clearly bears responsibility, but so do others high up the chain of command, including the Vice President and certainly including Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and this is something that has to be really thoroughly investigated and acted upon, and in the end of the day, it will have to be acted upon through prosecutions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if those prosecutions were to occur, do you think that they would have to be initiated by some other U.S. attorney. I mean, what would be the possibility of Fitzgerald even extending his investigation so broadly, even into cover-ups of the torture situation by the government? Who else would initiate those prosecutions?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think this is very important question. In fact, it’s something I have discussed with senior military people regularly. Their concern — they don’t want the International Criminal Court. They don’t want foreign prosecutions. And they really see the cost of avoiding that sort of international accountability as being sure that we do the job ourselves at home.

And, of course, it can’t be done by this Justice Department or by Attorney General Gonzales. He is too deeply wound up in this himself. In fact, note the Justice Department is not prosecuting the homicides that are connected to the C.I.A. As soon as it did that, such a prosecution, the question of the Justice Department’s own torture memoranda would come forward. So, what you need is someone like Patrick Fitzgerald, frankly. You need a special prosecutor who is appointed to develop a case and bring charges.

AMY GOODMAN: And how, finally, do you answer, Scott Horton, those who are talking about — I just heard Richard Clarke, for example, yesterday, the former counterterrorism czar saying we have got to stop criminalizing politics?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I agree with that. But I’d also say, you know, that there’s a trivial sort of criminalization. But here we’re talking about not what’s going on in Washington D.C. We’re talking about what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places around the world, and we’re talking about murder, homicide, serious assault, torture. These are the most serious sorts of crimes that exist, and the United States took a very aggressive posture about this sort of criminality at the end of Second World War. We repeated that again during the Yugoslav campaign and following the genocide in Rwanda, taking a principled position that there must be prosecutions, including of political figures. It cannot be the case from the U.S. perspective that this is true for subequatorial African dictatorships and for the Yugoslavia regime, for the Germans and the Japanese, but not for the United States. That’s not possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Scott Horton is the head of the International Human Rights Committee of the New York City Bar Association, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, a law professor.

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