OPINION: A fateful election for liberty

One of the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions” has led to the Milan, Italy trial of 25 CIA agents and an U.S. Air Force colonel for having kidnapped Italian resident Mustafa Osama Nasr and flown him to Egypt where he was tortured - which included placing electrodes to various parts of his body to extract information for the CIA.

These operatives of our legendary CIA were caught scarlet-handed, having left a clear trail of cell-phone calls and bills paid at expensive Italian hotels. Also indicted in this contemptuous violation of the International Conventions Against Torture are members of the Italian secret service accused of being complicit with the CIA in this lawless kidnapping - the United States, of course, refuses to extradite the 26 Americans on trial. After all, the president repeatedly assures the world that “the United States does not torture.”

Further diminishing our reputation, the Italian trial of the CIA agents is being held after the unanimous Feb. 8 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights prohibiting governments (as the March 1 Economist reported) from deporting “an individual to a state where he may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.” Obviously, if it is forbidden for a person to criminally ignore the absolute ban on torture in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is also unlawful to kidnap people and transport them to other countries to be tortured.

Further lowering world respect for our all-too-often shameful post-September 11 human-rights record, President Bush on May 8 vetoed a bill passed by the House and Senate that required the CIA to adhere to the Army Field Manual’s rules of interrogation. These rules forbidding torture are already a mandate for all of our other armed services.

As Amnesty International said of that continuing “special power” for the CIA: “The Bush administration continues its stubborn and reckless disregard for basic decency and values the United States should model. The president’s action further compounds the incalculable damage to United States’ standing at home and abroad.” In Congress, Rep. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, introduced bills in 2007 and earlier to end CIA renditions, but the bills have not moved. That inaction makes Congress another major actor in the derision of our moral and law-enforcement standards in many parts of the world.

During their campaigns, I have not heard from Barack Obama, John McCain or Hillary Clinton on whether they will, if elected, act to end this shame of the United States. (Mr. McCain, of course, strongly favors “special powers” for the CIA.) And if the Democrats continue to control the next Congress, their congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have been indifferent to erasing the stain of our being a torture nation.

In reaction to the president’s veto of the legislation that would order the CIA to recognize basic human rights, Scott Atran, a research scientist at New York’s John Jay College (which specializes in criminal law), the University of Michigan and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, made the vital point in a New York Times letter (March 11) that: “America is currently caught in a battle between the competing rhetorics of … tribalism … and of humanity. Given our singular military and cultural power in today’s world, no less than the future of 250 years of human-rights development rests on how this internal American battle is resolved.”

I know that may sound like a form of jingoism, but consider who the other powerful future nations could be for years ahead: China, in particular. If the United States’ cultural and moral resonance can be regained, we will be a force for basic decency and humane values during the continuing war for civilization.

“Americans,” Mr. Atran continued, “sense that this is a fateful election for our Republic; they may not realize how important it is for the world as a whole.” The present polls do not indicate this priority among our electorate of the world’s stake, let alone our own historic human-rights values, in this election. It could help if one of the presidential candidates were to remind voters of how our values have been transmogrified since September 11 by the present administration, as insisted on by Dick Cheney in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sept. 16, 2001: “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

Is America to be a model to the world by resembling our enemies? Who will “we” be, then? So, this can indeed be a fateful election - and not only for our republic.

Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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