Candidates Offer Stark Contrasts On Terror, Torture
San Francisco - Tuesday's election contests across the United States will offer voters some clear choices on controversial issues like water boarding, secret trials of terrorism suspects, and the future of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, say analysts.
There's no question where Mitt Romney stands on holding terrorism suspects, for example.
"I want them in Guantanamo where they don't have the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil," he said in a recent Republican candidates debate. "Some people have said we should close Guantanamo. I think we should double Guantanamo."
Among the "some people" who want to close the U.S. military prison are international human rights groups, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Romney's chief rival for the Republican nomination John McCain. McCain and Ron Paul are alone in the Republican field in holding that position.
In December, Mike Huckabee told CNN he'd keep the prison open if he were elected president.
"I visited Guantanamo just about a year ago," he said. "My sense, since I visited just about every single prison in the Arkansas prison system, is that most of our prisoners would love to be in a prison more like Guantanamo."
Both of the remaining Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- say they would close Guantanamo if elected, and both voted against the military commissions act, which set up secret trials for prisoners held at Guantanamo.
But Obama and Clinton are less clear on what they would do with the hundreds of people incarcerated there, or with the tens of thousands of "security detainees" being held without trial in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They have not explained what they're [standing] for," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued the Bush administration over its treatment of detainees. "My view is that you have to be either for charging people with a crime or releasing them. You have to be for charging people in existing courts, whether they be military courts martial or federal courts. That's what you should be for."
Obama and Clinton have both said they are against torture and have spoken out against the mock drowning technique known as water boarding.
In a debate last September, Clinton was asked if she would support torture if she knew a prisoner in U.S. custody had intelligence that could stop an imminent terrorist attack on the United States.
"There is very little evidence that it works," Clinton said.
"These hypotheticals are very dangerous," she added, "because they open up a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president take toward the appropriate treatment of everyone and I think it's dangerous to go down this path."
Ratner is as concerned about the Democrats' refusal to get specific on the issue of torture as he is on their specific plans for prisoners held in Guantanamo.
He called on all presidential candidates to disavow not only water boarding, but also "chaining to the floor, stripping, hooding, the use of dogs, sexual humiliation, cold temperatures, and loud music."
"That's what Mitt Romney calls 'enhanced interrogation techniques'," Ratner said, "but they're clearly torture according to every single person who's ever looked at that. We don't know the answers [as to where the Democrats stand] on these kinds of questions. Hillary [Clinton] once gave a fairly vague answer on things like that saying, 'well, until I get into government and see what's going on I'm not willing to answer.' Obama seems more against it, but again we can't really say."
Ratner says John Edwards' positions against torture and indefinite detention are stronger than Clinton and Obama's, but Edwards dropped out of the race last Wednesday.
Obama, however, has picked up an endorsement from a group of 80 volunteer lawyers for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In a statement released last week the attorneys said they consider Obama the best candidate to undo the Bush administration's policies on imprisonment and torture in the so-called "war on terror."
On the stump, Obama explains his position this way: "I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to take out the terrorists without undermining the Constitution and our freedom. That means no illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it's inconvenient."
Obama has repeatedly criticized Clinton for voting for the Patriot Act in 2001. But Obama and Clinton voted the same way when the Patriot Act came up for a reauthorization vote in 2006, notes Caroline Fredrickson, Washington lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"They both voted for it and it was very disappointing," Fredrickson told OneWorld. "There was a six-month filibuster of the Patriot Act that gave us a lot of hope that there was an opportunity to make improvements in the bill, but for basically a breadcrumb and little else the Democrats capitulated and let it become law."
Fredrickson says one of the best indications of where Clinton and Obama stand on civil liberties will could come in the next few days when the Senate votes on legislation that would extend the legalization of warrant-less wiretapping.
"They've been saying the right things," she said, "so I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll vote the right way -- but until they do I can't tell you one way or the other."
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