Should Our Attorney General Encourage Torture?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/23/2004

The President has nominated Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General. As White House counsel, Gonzales encouraged the use of torture by the US and the nullification of the Geneva Conventions that were ratified by the US and all other countries soon after World War II.

This appointment poses serious dangers to human rights and to our Constitutional checks and balances on presidential power.

Under the Constitution, the Senate must vote on whether to confirm his nomination. The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on the nomination at 10 am on January 6.

We urge you to write or call the committee and its staff and leaders to demand that Mr. Gonzales clearly assert that he opposes the use of torture and will not permit it. If he will not do this, we urge that his nomination be rejected.

If you wish to express your concerns about the Gonzales nomination, we encourage you to write or phone Senators Specter (chairman) and Leahy (minority leader) of the Committee:

Hon. Arlen Specter, United States Senate, 711 Hart Senate Office Building,
Washington DC 20510 (but mail delivery to the Capitol is greatly delayed;
fax is better at 202/228-1229). Phone, 202/224-4254;
Staff Director, Senate Judiciary Committee, for majority (Republican)
members, Bruce Artim, 202/224-5225.

Hon. Patrick Leahy, United States Senate, 433 Russell Senate Office
Building, Washington DC 20510 (but mail delivery to the Capitol is greatly
delayed; fax is better at 202/224-3479). Phone, 202/224-4242;
Staff Director, Senate Judiciary Committee, minority (Dem) members,
Bruce Cohen, 202/224-7703.

We suggest the following talking points for your call or letter:

I am deeply concerned that Mr. Gonzales as White House counsel advised the President that the President was authorized under the Constitution to annul the Geneva Conventions and to authorize the use of torture by United States forces and agents in the process of interrogating prisoners.

That memo was not merely theoretical: It had a major effect on the chain of command and the behavior of American forces and agents in Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib, and at other prisons in various places where the United States has either itself used methods named as torture by the Geneva Conventions or has "rendered" its prisoners to foreign governments known to use extremely brutal methods of torture.

Mr. Gonzales' advice that the President was legally entitled to authorize such behavior casts great doubt on his worthiness to become Attorney General.

The only way for him to assuage that doubt is for him to unequivocally affirm before the Judiciary Committee that —

He denounces and will oppose the use of torture under any circumstances;

That he will uphold, obey, and enforce the Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to imprison anyone designated as an "enemy combatant" for months without access to lawyers or the right to challenge their detentions in court;

That he affirms the binding legality of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war;

That he rejects the practice of "extraordinary rendition," at home and abroad, by which some prisoners are sent to countries that practice extreme torture for interrogation.

That these provisions of the Constitution and laws of the United States apply to the President as well as to all other Federal officials.

And that if confirmed he will use the full power and authority of the Department of Justice to enforce these laws.

We take this position not only out of love for the Constitution and laws of the United States, not only out of deep concern for the safety of American soldiers and civilians who may well be endangered if the protections of the Geneva Conventions are denigrated and diminished by the United States, but out of moral and ethical values deeply affirmed by Torah and by the religious traditions of many communities and peoples.

Indeed, more than 200 religious leaders from a broad spectrum of religious leaders have together signed a letter expressing these same concerns, showing how deep is the opposition to torture in all the world's religious traditions and communities.

From the shared standpoints of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all human beings are created in the Image of God.

Torture shatters and defiles that Image. In every shriek of those in unbearable pain, in every crazed nightmare of those who are denied sleep for days and weeks at a time, in every muffled moan of those plunged under water for minutes at a time, trying not to breathe lest they drown, God is broken. God is defiled.

Some have argued that the President is entitled to have almost anyone he wishes in his Cabinet. But the power to reject such appointments was placed by the Constitution in the hands of the Senate precisely to check and balance the likelihood that Presidents might appoint officials who would then assist the President to puff up his power beyond Constitutional limits, and to break the law

Our Founders knew perfectly well of British kings who had used torture or otherwise broken the bounds of legitimate law. They intended to make that impossible in our republic.

I urge you therefore to use wisely the authority that the Founders so wisely put in your hands.

If Mr. Gonzales fails or refuses to make these commitments that we have outlined, I urge you to vote against confirming his nomination and against sending it to the floor, and I urge you to use the full power of Senators to oppose his confirmation.

I know you share my deep concern for moral values and for those aspects of our religious traditions that are universally relevant. So I will look forward to your decision on this question.