Blaming the Messenger Fools No One

On Sunday, the Iraqi government announced that Saddam Hussein would be charged with crimes going back to the 1982 killings of almost 160 men in the Shiite village of Dujail.

The evidence will come in no small measure from reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups published before and during the United States' semi-secret alliance with Hussein in the 1980s.

This unsavory partnership with Hussein was partly created by Donald Rumsfeld when he was a special presidential envoy to the Middle East in 1983 and '84.

But that sorry bit of history did not stop Rumsfeld and the president last week from bludgeoning Amnesty International for daring to criticize the Bush administration's torture-stained offshore prison system -- in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. It's "reprehensible," Rumsfeld said of the human rights organization's report. It "cannot be excused."

Of course, in the world outside the Beltway, what is really reprehensible is the detention of hundreds of people for years without granting them prisoner-of-war status or charging them with a crime.

What is reprehensible is letting dogs attack naked prisoners, shipping others out to be tortured by totalitarian regimes and covering up the deaths of prisoners during interrogations.

But for the aggrieved leaders of the world's only superpower, pointed criticism from a citizen-run nonprofit apparently is more shocking than the abuse of prisoners they deem guilty until proved otherwise.

"It's an absurd allegation," President Bush said of the Amnesty International report, referring to the organization's sources as "people who hate America."

Vice President Dick Cheney said he was offended and that he doesn't take Amnesty International seriously.

Both men argued, essentially, that the United States' historic contributions to human rights mean Amnesty International had no right to turn its steady gaze on us.

Yet the White House certainly took Amnesty International seriously when the administration was campaigning for support for the invasion of Iraq.

"Amnesty International's description of what they know has gone on, it's not a happy picture," Rumsfeld said then, urging "a careful reading of Amnesty International."

And, pointed out Amnesty International's U.S. director, Bill Schultz, "they have never found us absurd when we criticized Cuba, North Korea or China."

What Amnesty International attempted to do in its current report is what it always does: hold all nations to a plumb line of integrity on human rights.

Its survey of 140 nations also called to task Russia, China and a host of other nations, as well as the United Nations.

Ignoring this careful balance and Amnesty International's impeccable credentials, the administration and its defenders chose to focus on one phrase in the report, the reference to the U.S. maintaining the "gulag of our time" at Guantanamo Bay.

Although it is clear that Gitmo is not comparable to the Soviet gulag, with its millions of prisoners held for decades, Amnesty International's point should be respected. We are talking about a secretive prison where some detainees have been held for more than three years without getting a single day in court.

"When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity," Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan wrote in her forward to the report.

Amnesty International does pay tribute to the U.S. Supreme Court for its recent ruling that the "war on terrorism" prisoners are entitled to their day in court, but notes ruefully that not a single detainee in Guantanamo Bay's detention facility has been offered such protection.

And the group has published some clear and moderate suggestions as to how the United States can bring its detention system into line with decent human rights practices:

• End all secret and incommunicado detentions.

• Grant the International Committee of the Red Cross full access to all detainees, including those held in secret locations.

• Ensure recourse to the law for all detainees.

• Establish a full independent commission of inquiry into all allegations of torture, ill treatment, arbitrary detentions and "disappearances."

• Bring to justice anyone responsible for authorizing or committing human rights violations.

As modest as these suggestions are, they are apparently anathema to the Bush administration, which instead of admitting its mistakes, prefers shooting the messenger.

How dare the White House and Pentagon, which have for three years rationalized torture and fought off the courts' attempts to grant the detainees some basic right of appeal, blame Amnesty International, rather than themselves, for besmirching the U.S. human rights record.

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