How Far We've Fallen: Attorney General Eric Holder Promises Russians US Government Won't 'Torture' Or 'Kill' Ed Snowden
from the should-have-gone-without-saying dept
If you had any question about how low this country's reputation has sunk or how we're viewed worldwide for our open-ended detainment and torture of uncharged terrorism suspects, you need look no further than Attorney General Eric Holder's "reassuring" statement to the Russian Minister of Justice about whistleblower Ed Snowden's potential extradition.
Holder's letter pointed out that torture is "unlawful" in the United States and that the government wouldn't seek the death penalty, even if "Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes."
William K. Black, writing for New Economic Perspectives, points out just how horrifically bizarre this situation is.
The idea that the Attorney General of the United States of America would send such a letter to the representative of a foreign government, particularly Russia under the leadership of a former KGB official, was so preposterous that I thought the first news report I read about Attorney General Holder’s letter concerning Edward Snowden was satire. The joke, however, was on me. The Obama and Bush administrations have so disgraced the reputation of the United States’ criminal justice system that we are forced to promise KGB alums that we will not torture our own citizens if Russia extradites them for prosecution.When a nation, especially one considered to be the figurehead of the "free world," has to make promises to a former Cold War rival that it won't torture and kill a whistleblower, there can be little doubt that the country has reached its nadir. The US used to shelter dissidents from the vengeance of their former countries and once considered whistleblowers to be a part of a healthy government.
But now we've come to the point where the nation's lead prosecutor has to openly state that torture and killing are off the table, at least in regards to Ed Snowden. How reassuring. The government hasn't "tortured" and killed its other main antagonist, Bradley Manning, but it did hold him in solitary confinement for over three years and his treatment could easily be defined as "torture." (Although not in the only way that counts: the administration's definition.)
Holder's letter has hints of malevolence below the "cheery" no-torture-or-killing surface.
Holder phrased his explanation in a manner that suggests he was trying to be clever: “Torture is unlawful in the United States.” “Gitmo,” of course, is not “in the United States.” The locations of the many secret prisons the U.S. established in other nations were chosen so that we could torture suspects...This isn't very reassuring, but then again, a spokesman for the administration feeling compelled to make loosely worded "promises" about torture and killing isn't exactly reassuring either. As Black says, this should have been a forgone conclusion, and yet, AG Holder felt compelled to state this explicitly.
More subtly, note that Holder says that torture is “unlawful” – not “illegal.” An act that is merely “unlawful” cannot be prosecuted as a crime. It may provide the basis for a civil suit. An “illegal” act can be prosecuted.
I always took it for granted that no U.S. attorney general would knowingly allow a criminal suspect in U.S. custody to be the victim of torture, raped, branded, or a host of other forms of brutality.Our country isn't supposed to torture and kill American citizens (although we have no qualms about doing either to non-Americans, which is troubling in its own way). And yet, there's still enough gray area in this statement to make it technically possible. One way the government could get around the whole "we don't torture and kill American citizens [except when we do]" issue is to do what the UK does when one of its citizens is targeted by the US: strip the suspect of citizenship.
In early February, a leaked white paper from the Obama Justice Department caused a small stir, because it laid out an expansive set of circumstances under which the president could order a citizen killed abroad. In September 2011, the US killed Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US citizens, and a few weeks later a US drone strike in Yemen also killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman...The US has already revoked Snowden's passport (although it is offering him a one-time use passport should he choose to return to the welcoming, non-killing, non-torturing arms of the United States). There's no reason it can't revoke his citizenship should it be deemed necessary. All he needs to do is pose an "imminent threat," another one of the War on Terror's endlessly flexible "guidelines."
Meanwhile, the UK is stripping people it alleges of having joined militant groups of their citizenship, some of whom have gone on to be killed in US strikes. Stripping people of their citizenship, strips people of whatever protection they theoretically had as citizens under UK law.
Of course, something as drastic as stripping Snowden of citizenship (and its attendant protections) is probably the most unlikely outcome. Holder's statement on the US government's intentions for Snowden is worded very specifically, most likely in hopes of preventing Snowden from taking advantage of the additional protection against extradition provided by the United Nations. Back when Snowden was still in Hong Kong, this point was raised by Tim Parker, a local immigration lawyer.
A handover could also be halted if Mr Snowden was believed to be in danger of receiving inhumane treatment in the US, Mr Parker added.Making very public statements about torture and killing sounds more like Holder trying to talk loudly enough that the UN will overhear him. If the government isn't going to venture into "cruel" and "inhumane" territory (at least not out loud), Snowden can't reasonably expect to be shielded from extradition by the UN guidelines.
"If Mr Snowden is at risk of being detained under the sort of conditions that Bradley Manning has reportedly been detained, which the UN special rapporteurs have said amounted to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment... then Hong Kong would not be allowed under its law, and could not extradite him to the US."
But whatever the administration's rationale for Holder's letter, the fact remains that the US government should never have slid to the disgraceful level where it feels its needs to make public promises about torture and killing. The fact that it has says a lot about the machinations of its anti-terror efforts -- one that turns whistleblowers into criminals and dissenting voices into terrorist sympathizers. If the administration wants to make a small effort towards rebuilding its reputation, it should consider dismissing the charges against Snowden and use the leaked information to open an actual discussion on national security and constitutional rights.