Mukasey’s Moral Ambiguity Fuels Torture

As U.S. Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey plays dumb on what constitutes torture, the lessons of Lewis Welshofer Jr. grow fuzzier.

By now most Americans probably don’t remember Welshofer. Those of us who covered his trial for torturing to death an Iraqi general will never forget him.Welshofer, a chief warrant officer and interrogation expert stuffed the general in a sleeping bag, tied him inside with electrical wire, sat on the general’s chest and smothered the general each time he refused to answer questions. The general finally couldn’t answer any questions if he wanted to. He was dead.

With guys like Mukasey clinging to the Bush Administration policy of blurring the line on torture, the servicemen and women asked to apply a stress-position friendly policy will inevitably cross the line.

Mukasey refuses to take a legal stand on waterboarding where you tie someone to a board, cover his or her face with a cloth and pour water over the cloth to simulate drowning. If Mukasey can’t recognize and condemn that practice as cruel, unusual AND illegal, he is not fit to be America’s chief lawyer.

“The law with respect to waterboarding is clear,” Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar said Wednesday while explaining his opposition to Mukasey’s confirmation. “The Geneva Conventions found it to be illegal. And from all human sensibilities you must conclude that waterboarding is illegal. Japanese soldiers who did it to Americans in World War II were convicted of crimes.”

The refusal to rule out waterboarding is symbolic of a depraved code of conduct that diminishes America’s moral authority in the world and isn’t terribly effective in producing usable intelligence.

Welshofer’s victim was reportedly beaten with a 15-inch sledgehammer handle by CIA interrogators in the days before he died. The photos of the Iraqi general’s body offered in evidence at Welshofer’s trial showed a man covered in horrible, dark bruises.

The general was indeed a high priority target. He helped run Saddam Hussein’s air force. So he probably knew more than he was willing to tell. That he took much of that knowledge with him to the grave exposes the futility of torture.

But finally, the debate over Mukasey and others in the Bush Administration cannot be about prying information from tight lips. It must be about right and wrong. At this point the White House has a cataract distorting its moral vision.

Welshofer got a slap on the wrist from a military jury that convicted him of negligent homicide. The crime carried up to 39 months in prison. But the jury recognized Welshofer’s role as a follower, not a leader. For torturing a man to death, the chief warrant officer got two months’ travel restrictions to his post at Ft. Carson and to church. He got to stay in the Army. He was docked $6,000 in pay. He never had to serve a jail sentence.

This is why Michael Mukasey should not empower savagery the way his predecessor Alberto Gonzales and other senior Bush officials have. When guys like Gonzales, ex-Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney start dicing the moral edges of interrogation techniques, you get dead bodies. More than that, you invite your enemies to do the same kind of dicing.

This is why the U.S. Senate passed anti-torture legislation in 2005. This is why, Salazar said, the Senate will do so again if that is what it takes to bring Mukasey and the Bush Administration to its senses.

“If Mr. Mukasey is confirmed we will introduce legislation that affirms waterboarding is illegal,” Salazar said. “Going forward, there should not be any equivocation on this issue.”

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Jim Spencer

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