March 6, 2007

Any One of Us

Last week, Jose Padilla was declared competent to stand trial in April, opening the door for whatever remains of due process for this man to finally begin slouching forward. For those unfamiliar with him, Padilla is an American citizen who was imprisoned as an "enemy combatant" in 2002, denied access to counsel or any sort of hearing for three and half years, and who is almost certainly the victim of physically and psychologically abusive treatment at the hands of the federal government. A troubled man with a checkered past, his fate is nonetheless one to which anyone reading this - U.S. citizen or foreign national - can be subject at the whim of the President.

While it appears that the Bush Administration's grasp on totalitarian powers of incarceration are slowly weakening in the face of public scutiny, foot dragging and obstruction remain the hallmark of its representatives in the Padilla case. To whit, in conjunction with the ruling on Padilla's competence came news that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is "no longer able to locate" the DVD transfer of a video taped recording of Padilla's interrogation in 2004, his last while in military custody at a Navy brig in Charleston, SC.

As an enemy combatant, Padilla was subject to "aggressive interrogation techniques" that had been approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and in 2004, the government’s refusal to allow Padilla access to an attorney helped spark a debate over civil liberties that ended up before the Supreme Court. The missing DVD is important because in the spring of 2004 - just after the March 2nd interrogation and not long before oral arguments were made before the Supreme Court - Padilla’s lawyers were notified they would finally be permitted to consult with him. In other words, the March 2nd interrogation is the last session during which Padilla's captors would have felt unconstrained by any rules other than those outlined by Mr. Rumsfeld.

Absent the DVD, the government has produced a summary document "based on" Padilla's interrogations which claims that he confessed to undergoing weapons training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, meeting with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, and discussing the detonation of a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Given the significance attached to Jose Padilla by the White House, the explosiveness of his purported confessions, and the ease with which video evidence could dismiss - or bolster - his claims of torture, it is staggeringly difficult to believe that the DIA has somehow misplaced what might be the single most important piece of evidence in their case. As John Sifton, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch put it:

This is the kind of thing you hear when you’re litigating cases in Egypt or Morocco or Karachi. It is simply not credible that they would have lost this tape. The administration has shown repeatedly they are more interested in covering up abuses than getting to the bottom of whether people were abused.

No single case better illustrates how far the system of American justice has fallen under the regime of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales than Padilla's. It encompasses denial of habeas corpus, secret imprisonment, incarceration at the president's discretion, torture, tainted evidence, secret evidence and denial of the right to counsel; but what's truly abhorrent is that that litany of transgressions against the Constitution isn't even exhaustive.

By coincidence however, the New York Times published an editorial last Sunday which does an excellent job of laying out the most crucial civil liberties issues facing Congress, and it serves also as a valuable primer for the civil liberties and rights that have been curtailed or eliminated since George W. Bush claimed the Oval Office. Take a moment to read the article - it's short - and glance through the list below (culled from the Times piece) to get a sense of what we've allowed ignorance stoked by power-mad fear mongering to make "acceptable."

And remember, this to-do list represents necessary changes to the current policy of the government of the United States of America. Not the former Sovet Union; not China; not a banana republic headed by a tin pot dictator; not Afghanistan under the Taliban. The United States of America:
  • Restore Habeas Corpus
  • Stop Illegal Spying
  • Ban Torture for Real
  • Close Secret Prisons
  • Account for ‘Ghost Prisoners
  • Ban Extraordinary Rendition
  • Tighten the Definition of Combatant
  • Screen Prisoners Fairly and Effectively
  • Ban Tainted Evidence
  • Ban Secret Evidence
  • Better Define ‘Classified’ Evidence
  • Respect the Right to Counsel
  • George W. Bush and his supporters have turned the United States into a cheap shadow of its former self; a blustering, hypocritical bully that fails to even approach the ideals it espouses. Jose Padilla now personifies the consequences of permitting too much power to concentrate in the hands of the few, and the ease with which a republic most people believe immutable and unshakeable, can begin sliding into authoritarianism. He is any one of us, and whether or not he is ever convicted of a crime, the injustices done to him can never be taken back, nor their stain removed from our national identity.

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