Earlier this month, Michigan Senator Carl Levin spoke at the University of Michigan on torture. The topic of his talk was “Torture, the Rule of Law, and American Security.” Levin, who was introduced as “an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq” and “a strong proponent of the need for America to conduct itself according to the highest of ethical standards,” argued that the United States’ use of torture is “a major part of the problem which we face in the world” and that its use is making the United States “less secure.”
Levin began by telling the story of a veteran in Ann Arbor who told him that the United States has lost the support of the people of the world and that the US must win that support back in order to secure the country. Levin said that this credibility is essential to dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the “long-term struggle against al-Qaeda and other fanatics.” He stressed that military power is not enough to win those struggles, but that instead the United States must “harness the power of our ideals.” It is worth noting that while Levin repeatedly brought up that the people of the world had a high opinion of the United States and its actions before 9/11, he never provided any evidence to support that claim.
He described the Peace Corps as being representative of how Americans like to see themselves. He said that most Americans see the country “acting as a beacon for human rights and liberties.” However, Levin sad, “When we fail to live up to the standards that we profess, when we project moral hypocrisy… much of the world sees us in a way that we do not like to be seen.” Levin said that now too much of world sees symbol of American values as the image of a prisoner being tortured at Abu Ghraib and not the Statue of Liberty. For many, the stories from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have “compromised our moral authority and hindered our ability to lead the world in our common efforts against common enemies.”
Levin said that the greatest threat to the United States’ security is “the terrorist threat.” In order to fight this threat, Levin argued that it is essential to have allies. He said that this struggle has been undermined by unilateral actions of the Bush administration. Because of their actions, people have a lower opinion of the United States. To support this assertion, Levin cited a 2007 BBC poll in which 29% of people said US is generally a positive influence in the world.
Levin said that the intelligence community knows that the US needs the support of the world’s people to fight terrorism, as it understands that information is the key to preventing terrorist attacks. According to Levin, one person overhearing a terrorist plot could prevent “the mass murder of our citizens.” However, that citizen is less likely to report the information “if he sees the United States as an arrogant bully.” He pointed to recent arrests in Spain that prevented a terrorist attack as an example.
Levin said that the Iraq War–both the decision to invade and the way in which it has been conducted–is one reason why the world’s opinion of the United States has fallen. However, he said the problem is much deeper in that many people resent American “hypocrisy.” He said that people see that America–who was “a champion of a certain set of rules”–is now breaking those rules.
The abuse of detainees has not come simply from lower-level enlistees, but rather “the administration consciously decided to permit the use of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that had previously had been viewed as inconsistent with our laws, our international commitments, and American values.” The Department of Justice’s “torture memo” said that for physical pain to constitute torture it must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Levin said that violent acts are not necessarily torture under this memo and that there may be exemptions from prosecution if you were acting “under the color of presidential authority.” He said that Rumsfeld authorized military interrogators to keep detainees naked, to keep them in so-called “stress positions,” and exploit their fears with the use of dogs. Moreover, the United States maintains secret prisons and has an “alternative set of procedures” for the CIA’s interrogation of prisoners in these prisons.
Levin cited law enforcement–including FBI–opinion that harsh interrogation techniques can make detainees more resistant and therefore deny the US critical intelligence. Levin said that this treatment “flies in the face” of decades of military practice. He also quoted General Petraeus, who has said that torture is illegal and that it is not typically useful or necessary. Levin said that “our uniformed leaders” understand that torture does not work, but that the civilian leaders who have advocated torture. He said that Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General Mukasey, and President George W. Bush that have continued to advocate torture.
Levin said that in the past, much of the respect that the United States has gained has been due to the accountability mechanisms built into the Constitution. However, the current administration has eroded that accountability by adopting legislation authorizing the administration to unilaterally redefine its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. He said that this effort has successfully insulated senior administration officials from accountability and has barred detainees from bringing legal action challenging their detention. The administration has taken the position that the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment, prohibit torture, and “outrages upon personal dignity,” do not apply to the war against al-Qaida. Levin said, “Happily, that position was rejected by the Supreme Court.” The 1994 Federal Anti-Torture Statue made torture a prosecutable crime, but it has been narrowed to the point where it is inapplicable to intelligence agencies. He said that the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005–which attempts to prevent detainees from being subject to torture–was weakened by a signing statement that allows the president to determine when it applies. Levin said that the Bush administration is continuing these efforts, citing a February Senate bill that would have ended the CIA’s ability to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” by making them follow the guidelines in the Army Field Manual that President Bush plans to veto.
Carl Levin told the audience that last year he traveled to Guantanamo to view proceedings against Khaled Sheikh Mahmoud determine the prisoner’s status. While Mahmoud admitted to a role in planning the 9/11 attacks during the hearing, he also presented a statement alleging that the CIA tortured him before being brought to Guantanamo. Levin said that it will be difficult for many to have sympathy for this admitted terrorist, yet there are many reasons to oppose torturing terrorists. Levin said torture, “violates our basic values, it is morally wrong, it produces unreliable information, it leads prisoners who might cooperate if dealt with humanely to instead resist cooperation, it violates domestic and international law, it jeopardizes are own troops if they are captured.” In addition, he said that people are less likely to believe that a confession has been freely given if there are abuses of detainees. He is worried that if the Untied States uses torture, people will focus more on how detainees are treated than what the terrorists have done.
Levin said that the United States’ policies must “reflect our values and ideals.” Current policy does not do that. People can be detained–possibly for life–without ever having a lawyer or knowing what the evidence was against them. He said that the legislature must continue to press for a more humane policy. While last year’s effort was thwarted by a filibuster, he believes that it must be pursued. Levin said that America must be “a beacon” in the world and that it can do so only by acting in accordance with its ideals.
Unfortunately, Levin left out much of his own voting record on torture. Levin has supported legislation opposing the use of torture in the “War on Terror” including the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and a February 2008 measure that would ban the CIA from using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Similarly, he voted against the Military Commissions Act, which exempts the United States’ treatment of detainees from international law. While his opposition to torture was clear in his speech, it would have benefited from more discussion of his own record.
On the same note, Levin also largely avoided the question of international law, despite its inclusion in the title of his talk. Aside from mentioning the Geneva Conventions a few times, there was little discussion of how international law prohibits the United States’ use of torture. There was also little discussion of how US law bans torture. Levin’s argument would have been strengthened had he both included information on legal obligations under international law and called for a renewed commitment to international law.