Control the Dictionary, Control the World

By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Clinton tried to fudge the truth when he claimed he’d “never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” but he felt he could get away with that language because, in his mind, he defined “sexual relations” as referring to vaginal intercourse.

Bush, with a straight face, tells us that he has never authorized torture, and he thinks he can get away with that lie because the public is mostly unaware that his administration has totally altered the definition of “torture.”

According to the infamous 2002 torture memos, which effectively set the policy, torture no longer means what we all understand that term to mean (physical beatings, shoving suspects under water to “drown” them unless they give up secrets, electric shocks to the genitals, unbearable stress, sexual abuse and humiliation, etc.). No, those internationally-understood definitions have become, under Bush&Co., “quaint” remnants from an earlier era.

Under the leadership of Alberto Gonzales and other lawyers — mainly from the White House, Rumsfeld’s office, and Cheney’s office — the Bush Administration went through all sorts of moral gyrations and emerged with new definitions of what constituted torture. Basically, it’s not torture if it doesn’t kill you or if the excrutiating pain and injuries don’t lead to organ failure.

You think I’m exaggerating? Check it out for yourself. The Justice Department’s August 1, 2002, legal memo concluded that “the ban on torture is limited to only the most extreme forms of physical and mental harm,” which the memo defined as akin to “death or organ failure.” [ See also “Bush’s Torture Deceit: What ‘Is’ Is,” ( ) and “Gonzales Grilled on Role in Torture at Confirmation Hearing.”) ] ( )

So when Bush says the U.S. doesn’t torture and he would never authorize torture, in a sense he believes himself to be telling the truth, since he totally transformed the meaning of “torture” to give it a totally different, exceedingly narrow, interpretation. The Administration apparently believes that as a result of interrogations under what Bush calls its “alternative set of procedures,” only if the detainees die or are the victims of organ failure could officials rightfully be accused of authorizing torture. (Actually, it’s estimated that perhaps as many as 100 detainees have died while in U.S. custody, scores of them directly from torture.)


Furthermore, Bush is asserting that U.S. laws against torture, and Congressional oversight of such activity, should only apply to interrogations that take place on American soil. If the CIA uses the “alternative procedures” in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or in the secret CIA prisons abroad, those don’t count. Plus, the Administration has moved to shield those who authorized and carry out “harsh” interrogations from national and international laws against mistreatment of prisoners. Meanwhile, of course, a few lower-level, enlisted “bad apples” have been tried, convicted, and sent to prison.

Likewise, according to the Bush Administration, the “extraordinary rendition” of especially recalcitrant prisoners to friendly countries abroad that are notorious for extreme physical torture does not count as the U.S. cooperating in the administration of torture. The Bush crew play variations on: “They were tortured there? Really? We are shocked, shocked! We don’t approve of torture and had no idea it was used on prisoners entrusted to their care.” Yeah, sure.

But recently, in making the case to Congress that it should pass the Administration’s draconian laws permitting such “alternative procedures,” Bush let the cat out of the bag and admitted that several al-Qaida suspects gave up a good deal of valuable information while being interrogated in those secret CIA prisons abroad. But he still denies that his administration carried out “torture” there. Does he think we’re stupid?

Do you see how it works? And the ramifications of how it works? In short, Bush&Co. have simply rewritten the dictionary to remove their legal liability for such crimes, and in the process have re-written the rules under which they, and their subordinates, act. When reality doesn’t meet their needs, they don’t consider making alterations to their policies; they just change the definition of what’s “real.”


In a sign of how desperate Bush is to maintain complete control of the torture definition — and thus keep himself and other top U.S. officials out of the war-crimes court in The Hague — Bush took a rare visit to Congress last week to try to forestall defeat of his torture/military tribunals bill. It was a definition struggle again.

The Geneva Convention on the treatment of captured prisoners is quite clear and specific; no country is permitted to use “cruel” treatment or “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” on prisoners in its care. Too “vague,” says Bush. Instead, he suggests, CIA interrogators need “latitude” (euphemism: “clarity”) in interrogating and torturing suspects so that they won’t be nervously looking over their shoulders at war-crimes charges.

The Pentagon’s senior lawyers think Geneva’s definitions are quite clear and openly disagreed with the hardline Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld interpretation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Even Colin Powell bestirred his calcified conscience to point out that by trying to do an end-around Geneva, the U.S. risked losing the moral high ground internationally. Also, as Sen. John McCain (who was tortured as a POW in Hanoi) and others have pointed out, the U.S. would put its captured troops in great jeopardy of “cruel and degrading” treatment — in other words, torture — similar to what the CIA was meting out in its secret prisons abroad.

Republican “moderate” senators McCain, Graham, Snowe, Warner and others have been demanding that the U.S. remain consistent with the Geneva protections and also provide some legal safeguards to suspects on trial in military tribunals. But time and time again, these so-called “moderates,” under extreme Roveian pressure, have caved and given Bush what he wants. As I write this, it’s unclear whether they have the courage to stick to their guns this time. We shall see. In the meantime, get this: Bush threatened to close down the CIA’s questioning of terrorist suspects unless Congress approves his bill. Talk about cutting off your nation’s nose to spite your personal face! Blackmail as a pre-emptive veto.


Let’s move to another definition, at another level. Bush’s National Security Strategy asserts that the U.S. can “pre-emptively” attack another country when it determines that country might possibly be thinking of attacking America or grossly harming our interests. In the “old days” — that is, pre-Bush — the definition of “pre-emption” meant that a country, in some circumstances, was permitted under international law to act first when faced with an imminent threat of attack.

In Bushspeak, it doesn’t matter that the countries in question might be 10 or 15 years out from being a viable threat, or that while they might be antagonistic to U.S. policies they have no intent of ever actually attacking America. No, according to the Bush Doctrine, you destroy possible or potential enemies first, long before they have the chance to even think of doing the U.S. harm.

That’s one of the Administration’s ex-post-facto justifications for having invaded and occupied Iraq. Once the early rationales for attacking were shown to be false — those big lies including that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD, and was allied with al-Qaida in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks — then the Administration went back to its “pre-emption” rationalization, in effect asserting: “We had to attack before Saddam got close to reconstituting his weapons programs; even though U.S./U.K. intel was confirming that Iraq was well-contained and that it could be 10 years before they would be a believable threat to anybody, we had to act now, to abort that development in its blastocyst stage before that potentially dangerous fetus could grow and do us harm as an adult.”

Transfer that rationalization theory to a trial for murder: “Your honor, I cannot be convicted of murdering the victim by shooting him six times. I fully believed he was thinking of doing me harm, maybe next year or the year after that, and so I took him out pre-emptively. It was a clear case of early self-defense.” That explanation should satisfy a Bush Administration jury.


Perhaps the most reprehensible aspect of the Administration’s desperation to avoid indictment for authorizing torture is a tactic they’ve used in other areas as well: Trying to eliminate judicial review of their actions. In taking this tack, they are making an open assault on the Constitution and several centuries of governmental precedent.

Despite the fact that Bush&Co. have packed the Supreme Court and the various appellate courts with their ideological brethren, they still don’t have total control of the legal system, and therefore want to avoid judicial review whenever possible. They know how weak their Constitutional cases are. So they have had their flunkies in Congress introduce a variety of bills to prohibit court review of certain Administration policies and laws — as if the Supreme Court would ever OK having its judicial prerogatives revoked.

But in the Administration’s military-tribunals bill currently before Congress, Bush&Co. also have inserted an in-your-face clause that would prevent civilian courts from intervening in, or reviewing the legality of, the proposed military tribunals. This would totally violate America’s historic checks-and-balances system of governance, and would amount to the Executive Branch effectively controlling the Legislative and Judicial branches of government. In short, a budding dictatorship.

As noted previously, ( ) the Administration has created what they consider to be an airtight legal justification for Bush to act outside the law whenever he claims to be doing so as “commander-in-chief” during “wartime.” Since his “war on terrorism,” by definition, is a never-ending war, this means his actions “in defense of the homeland” permanently cannot be challenged. Sounds like the ingredients for dictatorship.


No wonder Bush is leery of courts ever getting near the justifications for his imperial presidency. The two times when the Supreme Court did review his behavior toward detainees in U.S. care, he was reprimanded mightily, in no uncertain language.

In the 2004 case of Mr. Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Court: “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. … Even the war power [of the President] does not remove constitutional limitations safeguarding essential liberties.”

In the recent case of Mr. Hamdan, a foreign suspect, the court slapped down Bush’s I-am-the-Law approach again. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority: “[I]n undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction.”


The power to nominate new Supreme Court justices is just one of many reasons why the momentum of this outlaw administration must be broken as quickly as possible. Which brings us to the midterm elections in November.

The imminence of that election explains why Bush is trying to create a rushed, “crisis” atmosphere to get his bill passed; after all, his Administration could have brought these suspects to trial anytime within the past five years. “We’re running out of time,” Bush says, by which he really means: “We’ve got to get this issue neutralized now, before the election, or else we can’t smear the Democrats as pro-terrorist for blocking my bill, since it will be Republicans, with military credentials, who also are doing the obstructing.”

Even if the GOP rebels hold their ground this one time, but especially if they don’t, the American people — left, right and center — must speak with one enormous groundswell of revulsion against the ruling Republican Party in the Congress that has rubber-stamped virtually everything Bush&Co. have asked for. A convincing GOP defeat in the House would do great damage to the Administration’s momentum of lawlessness.

The current fracturing of the Republican Party in Congress is a testament to the revolt of the moderate middle in America against the Bush Administration’s catastrophic bungling in Iraq, its demonstrated incompetence in the Katrina debacle, its lies and deceits, its slimy denunciations of those who oppose CheneyBush Iraq policy (which means about two-thirds of the American people) as terrorist-supporting traitors, etc., etc.

If the GOP can be roundly trounced two months from now at the polls, its defeat will be due in no small part to those honest, traditional conservatives who, appalled by the hijacking of their once-great party by extremists from the Far Right, are thoroughly fed up and have had enough of misrule on a grand scale. (Note: This election, given Rove’s previous history, will require extreme vigilance, and probably court suits, to keep the voting honest and honestly-counted.)

Let us all — Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, progressives — join with these moderate Republicans, and start the process of moving our country back to common decency, earned respect, and a sane foreign and domestic policy based on reality and the true needs of the American people. Can I hear an Amen? #

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers ( To comment: .

First published at The Crisis Papers 9/19/06.

Published in: on 09/19/2006 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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