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The attorney-general comes to town

Fred Halliday
27 March 2006

Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general of the United States, is all that the modern state would wish to have as its representative: detached in the fulfilment of his bureaucratic obligations; obedient to, if not obsequious towards, his boss; wordy and word-twisting in matters of legal definition; stonewalling on matters of substance; and, above all, distinctly cold in matters of human concern.

When he took the stage at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London on 7 March 2006, to speak on anti-terrorism policy and the need for international cooperation, Gonzales – the highest legal authority in the executive branch of the world's leading democracy – did not immediately command attention. Yet the attorney general, a former White House counsel, is the man who presided over (and to a considerable degree served to authorize) a range of contentious US detention policies, from Guantànamo to Abu Ghraib, from "rendition" to "stress positions".

Gonzales was evasive on matters of substance, jocular in response to questions touching on matters of human suffering. Asked if he thought that setting dogs on naked prisoners was a form of torture, he said he did not give opinions on individual detention practices. He shifted responsibility – and hence blame – from the department of justice to the department of defence when it suited him. Above all, he was apparently oblivious and indifferent to the consternation, rage and concern which recent US policies – enacted following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington – have occasioned.

There is nearly always something slightly chilling when groups of mid-Atlantic government officials, arrayed in phalanxes of grey suits, get together to discuss their security concerns. But never, in more than thirty years of observing such occasions, have I seen such an appalling, collusive, complacent and – in its own understated way – evil, performance as this.

That the US – its officials and citizens – has been, and will continue to be for a long time, the object of violent attacks, at home and abroad, is not in question. Nor is the right, and responsibility, of any state to protect itself as it can, including by taking anticipatory measures abroad. The issue, and what has become a matter of worldwide alarm and criticism, is the flouting of international law, the laws and norms of combat and international opinion, as well as the disdain in which the Bush administration, from the president downwards, continues to hold international law and the institutions in which it is embodied. In this regard, the performance by Gonzales, on a sunny March morning in London, was true to form.

On matters of US policy, Gonzales argues for increased international cooperation while acknowledging differences on matters of "rendition" (secret kidnapping and deportation to third countries of terror suspects) and on "treatment of foreign fighters" (such as denial of prisoner-of-war status to captured opponents). He makes no apology for the use of the term war on terrorism. We are at war, he argues, and are using the methods of war. The enemies of the US have attacked embassies, blown up ships, attacked civilian offices and tourist centres, as well as the American financial and administrative capitals. Sixty-seven UK citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, he reminded his British audience. At the same time, he praised the UK for increased cooperation on "data exchange", including DNA material and fingerprints, and listed a number of incidents in 2003-04 when such exchanges of information between officials of the two countries had thwarted attacks and saved lives.

Department of justice officials are now attached to the US embassy in London, and British police officials to the country's embassy in Washington. Resorting, in what must be the most tired of transatlantic tropes, to a quote from Winston Churchill, Gonzales made an appeal "to all freedom-loving peoples".

Gonzales's qualities as an apologist were in evidence in response to questions. When asked by a senior British military historian what the west could do to reverse the alienation of moderate Islamic opinion across the world, as a result of revelations about Guantànamo and Abu Ghraib, the attorney-general had nothing of substance to say. Asked by the representative of the BBC whether the interrogation practice of "waterboarding" – in which water is poured onto a prone prisoner's covered face, making the captive feel that he or she is about to drown – should be permitted, Gonzales made a joke.

In response to questions about torture, he quoted from a congressional definition, according to which torture involved the infliction of "severe mental or physical suffering". It had not been US government practice to allow torture, he said: "US legal standards" were being upheld, while cases of reported abuse were investigated. Asked by the CNN correspondent about Council of Europe and Amnesty International documentation and criticism of the "rendition" programme, Gonzales saw no reason for second thoughts, and reminded his audience that unpublicised flights by US military planes had been authorised by European states for decades. When would the US close the centre at Guantanamo? All detention policies were under constant review, he said, but the US had the right to hold detainees "for the duration of hostilities". That claim is even more ominous than it may first appear: current US military doctrine talks of a "long war", implying the conflict may last for decades.

A new standard of barbarism

Gonzales's performance was also remarkable for what he did not say. The title of his London talk included a reference to "international cooperation", but this appeared to be very much a one-way street: not only did he make no mention of the most obvious existing international bodies for dealing with cases of transnational criminal behaviour, the United Nations tribunal in The Hague and the new International Criminal Court – the second of which the US flatly opposes – but at no point did he make even the most cursory reference to international law. While vaunting about the US campaign against terrorism, he saw no need to acknowledge that many other countries – in Europe and in Latin America – had longer experience of reconciling democracy with anti-terrorism than had the US, or that huge effort had gone into trying to get a common policy on terrorism formulated within the UN.

Of equal importance – and in striking testimony to the blinkered, when not catatonic, nature of current US government thinking – no one mentioned the role played by the British-American presence in Iraq in generating hostility to west. Whether or not the US and European countries share values on matters of detention and interrogation, Washington's policies have put all of its allies and friends, from the militarily engaged British and Poles, to the cartoonists of provincial Denmark, on the same frontline.

The most striking response to the insouciance of Gonzales had come a day before he spoke, with the publication on 6 March of an Amnesty International report on treatment of prisoners in Iraq (what is now, in an odious euphemism, routinely referred to as "prisoner abuse", but which is, in many cases and by any normal standards, torture). The Amnesty report, Beyond Abu Ghraib: Detention and Torture in Iraq, showed how the mistreatment, beating, humiliation and prolonged and illegal detention of Iraqis was taking place not only in the notorious Baghdad prison but, in even larger numbers, in the British-administered Camp Bucca in Basra and in another centre in the northern city of Sulaimaniya.

Some of the 14,000 prisoners estimated to be held had been in detention for over two years and had no remedy or recourse. In all of this, Iraqi forces, formally invested with detention powers since June 2004, have played an active role – including mass killings by interior ministry officials in Baghdad. But British and US forces, in overall command, have also set a standard of barbarism by their actions and, perhaps more importantly, by their failure to take effective and exemplary action against those responsible.

Among the broader issues raised by this terrible story – which will harm western policy and any associated democratising aspirations for the middle east for decades – there is one that perhaps is most relevant here. This is that the levels of abuse, beating, humiliation and torture practised by the US and British armies in Iraq reflect not some aberrant behaviour, nor the stress of battle, nor the actions of "rotten apples"; rather, they reflect the deeply embedded, officially sanctioned, and officially covered up, racism and brutality that lie at the core of the culture of the armed forces of these two states.

In the case of the US forces – and perhaps to a lesser extent in the case of the British – they also reflect the prison culture which these countries permit at home. In a moment of exceptional objectivity a US prisoner being released from years of detention in North Vietnam, a man who had suffered abuse at the hands of the Hanoi government, once observed: "No country puts its best people into its prison service". That may be so, but such prison services are sanctioned and protected by political and state officials.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, and visiting professor at CIDOB, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East
(Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.

However, the pervasive, institutional and sanctioned misconduct witnessed in Iraq goes further than this, and speaks to the endurance of the mentalities the US and Britain have inherited from their history of military conduct worldwide. A similar attitude lies in the British response, from prime minister Tony Blair downwards, to the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Brazilian worker, Jean Charles de Menezes, in the London underground last July.

That event, following the 7 July 2005 bomb attacks on four underground trains, revealed much of the unchallenged nastiness within the British state, the culture of cover-up that pervades it, and the energetic use of fake leaks and innuendo by the police in controversial cases (in which the London press is so collusive). Even the phrase used, "shoot to kill", is a euphemism, since the man was shot while being held on the ground, not while running away. The real name of the policy should be "murder to deter".

It is much discussed, in regard to former dictatorships of southern Europe or Latin America, whether there has been "security-service reform", whether the former generals and police chiefs have been re-educated in democratic norms and the rule of law. But as Iraq has shown, the armed forces of Britain and the US are as much in need of such a thorough and ruthless purging, of both personnel and attitude, as those of Spain or Chile – and are even less likely to be subjected to it. The US military's propensity to brutality and institutional cruelty, which is then given official sanction from the top by Gonzales and his chief, George W Bush, will be with us for a long time to come.

The conduct and defence of such practices by the US government, and the kind of ritualised stalling that the British state engages in, have hit hard at any regime based on international law and on the universalist assumption, legal as well as moral, of equal worth and treatment of human beings.

Indeed, the whole language of the US government rejects universalism, doing so in its appeal to "US values", its focus on the protection of US citizens, its disdain for the UN and its refusal to see how US policies – past and present – have contributed to fuelling hostility around the world. On the matter of the universality of torture, however, a good friend of mine, a wry Turkish intellectual who has had reason over the years to reflect on such matters in his own country, suggested a simple test to which Gonzales might be subjected: if he is in any doubt as to whether setting dogs on a naked and shackled man is torture, he should himself volunteer to undergo this form of interrogation. We might then get a quick, direct and, in its own way, universal answer.

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