Law Legalizes Shameful Treatment

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the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Law Legalizes Shameful Treatment

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has signed the law that legalizes the administration's shameful treatment of detainees suspected of terrorism.

The same measure also empowers the president to define torture. It's a sad legacy for the U.S. and its already-tarnished world image.

The new law -- the Military Commissions Act of 2006 -- establishes a system for trying suspects in military tribunals. It was enacted after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the administration plan for trials by military commissions violated U.S. and international law.

In effect, Bush got all he wanted from a submissive GOP-dominated Congress and a few spineless Democratic lawmakers. The president did not issue his customary signing statement interpreting implementation of the law. He didn't have to because lawmakers on Capitol Hill had handed him total victory.

The far-reaching legislation gives Bush the right to decide what constitutes torture. The president has often said "we do not torture," despite evidence to the contrary -- and photographs from Abu Ghraib prison.

The president also can set guidelines for interrogation of prisoners. White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to say whether "waterboarding" -- in which detainees are made to feel they are drowning -- would be permissible.

The law specifically bars blatant abuses including murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment. But it permits withholding evidence from defendants in certain cases. And it denies detainees the right to file habeas corpus petitions to challenge their detentions in federal courts. The tradition of habeas corpus dates back almost 800 years to the Magna Carta.

Under the new law, Bush also has powers to designate who is an illegal enemy combatant, which potentially subjects U.S. citizens and foreigners to indefinite detention with no power to appeal.

Bush is also allowed to interpret the Geneva Conventions on Humane Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Furthermore, the CIA apparently will be able to continue sending prisoners to secret prisons abroad and agents will have immunity from prosecution for their interrogation practices. Many Europeans who have lived under tyrannical regimes cannot believe the U.S. would submit to such treatment of detainees.

Bush was beaming when he signed the bill on a table with a sign in front that read: "Protecting America." Standing by his side was Vice President Dick Cheney, a prime mover in the administration's drive to enhance presidential power.

But right now those who voted for this law believe it will be help them in the November election. And Democrats who voted against it should watch out for a total GOP assault on their commitment to protecting America from terrorist attack.

Critics see the new law as authorizing creation of a veritable Gulag.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the new law "one of the worst civil liberties measures in American history."

Bush contended that his policies on terrorism suspects did not require congressional approval, manifesting his apparent belief that the president is above the law. The Supreme Court proved him wrong.

Bush's order for warrantless wiretapping of Americans is yet another example of a presidential power grab.

Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said Bush has been accused of "criminal torture in a way that could hurt America and come back to haunt our troops."

The military commissions act is law. All Americans will be tainted by it.

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas was an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. Among other books she was the author of Front Row at The White House: My Life and Times. Helen passed away on July 20, 2013.

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