Wednesday, November 10, 2004

At least he's not Ashcroft

Are parts of the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" and "quaint"? The man who's likely to become our new attorney general thinks so.

With great fanfare today, President Bush tapped White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to fill the AG shoes being vacated by overzealous Patriot Act enforcer John Ashcroft, who, as I again must emphasize, lost a U.S. Senate race to a corpse in 2000. News reports indicate that Senate Democrats, in a stirring display of party unity and courageous opposition, will prostrate themselves at Bush's feet and allow Gonzales' confirmation train to roar through the Senate without so much as the pretense of an obstacle in its path. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a long-rumored AG candidate, has publicly said he doesn't want the job.

Give Bush credit for making history by selecting the man likely to become our first Hispanic AG ever. But remain vigilant, because Gonzales is the same man who in a January 2002 memo to Bush wrote that parts of the Geneva Conventions, the international laws of war, are "obsolete" and "quaint" in the war on terrorism. Here's the gist of the memo, which said Geneva doesn't apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters:

"The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians. . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

In Gonzales' defense, a few of the provisions to which he referred -- commissary privileges, athletic uniforms, scientific instruments -- do seem like relics of the World War II era, and al-Qaeda terrorists don't wear uniforms or carry their weapons openly, so they may well not be subject to Geneva. Still, when your opponents learn that you don't plan to treat their captured fighters according to the rules of war, they're much less likely to treat your POWs humanely in turn. Gonzales' memo also helped set in motion the no-holds-barred course of action that led to notorious prison abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Warning: Links are graphic and not safe for work.)

Despite it all, I'm willing to give Gonzales a chance. He was an able justice on the Texas Supreme Court in the 1990s, and it's hard to envision an AG infringing on civil liberties any more than the office's current occupant has. Not impossible, but hard.

Sure, Gonzales isn't Giuliani, but he also isn't Ashcroft.


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