Today On Holden’s Obsession With [Yesterday’s] Gaggle

Wow, what agaggle they had yesterday. The Assministration is desperate to legalize torture by unilaterally redefining Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. They now realize that, having specifically authorized the torture of detainees held around the globe, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the chain of command below them in both the military and the CIA are criminally liable. Pony tries to lay the groundwork for it before any questions are asked.

It’s vague! Vague, I tells ya’!

Some of the language Holden Common Article II — Common Article III — I’m sorry — is vague.


In the case of Common Article III, of course, you have had some of — the “prohibitions against cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” — that’s important to figure out what that means. As you know, in —

Q It’s vague to you?

MR. SNOW: Yes, it is.

Q Mean, cruel, inhuman, degrading?

MR. SNOW: Yes, because you have to specify exactly what you mean.

Q Keep smiling. (Laughter.)

You may wish toread the entire transcript as it is a sight to see. Otherwise, Obsession continues…

Powell and Vessey are “Confused”

There has been a little bit of confusion about what we’re up to. There was a letter that came out yesterday from General JAG Vessey, who wrote: “I call your attention to recent reports that the Congress is considering legislation which might relax the United States’ support for adherence to Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. If that is true, it would seem to weaken the effect of the McCain amendment on torture last year.”

Then followed today, a letter from former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell: “I’ve read the powerful and eloquent letter sent to you by one of my distinguished predecessors as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jack Vessey. I fully endorse in tone and tint his powerful argument. The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article III would add to those doubts; furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.”

What’s interesting is, in a way we agree with the two gentlemen. They don’t understand what we’re trying to do here.


Q So do you think that Colin Powell, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is just confused about what you’re trying to do?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q And you think that he would write a letter like this without an understanding —

MR. SNOW: I don’t know — it’s interesting — we didn’t hear from him, so I don’t know.

Q So you think that John McCain and Senator Warner and Lindsey Graham are confused about what you’re trying to do?

MR. SNOW: I think what’s — no, but there’s a difference here, because what — there’s a difference and there’s an opportunity. The assertion that we are trying to amend or change Common Article III is wrong. And I think it’s worth saying to everybody, no, we’re not trying to change anything; we’re trying to figure out what it means. That’s what the Supreme Court — that is the burden the Supreme Court laid before the Congress of the United States and the White House.


Q Well, how do you account for the fact that three Republican senators oppose you so vehemently on this?

MR. SNOW: It’s a free country, you’re allowed to oppose — and what I’m suggesting is that there are still ongoing conversations and I wouldn’t prejudge.

Vaguity, Vaguity, Vague-Vague-Vague

Q Let me follow up. This can be complicated, so let’s get down to the facts here. The legislation that the President has proposed seeks to make Article III clear, less vague, by defining —

MR. SNOW: No, it seeks to —

Q Let me just finish my point. I’m laying this out and you tell me if it’s not right. Limiting the U.S. interpretation of Article III to defining as a war crime “cruel and inhumane treatment,” therefore, excluding the vague language you talked about — “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” as a violation of the War Crimes Act —

MR. SNOW: That also falls — all of that falls within — we want all of that to be defined within the parameters of Common Article III, and to do that, what you use is the language from the Detainee Treatment Act, which covers all of those phrases.


Q Right. But in your attempt to redefine it — MR. SNOW: No, it’s to define it.

Q Well, right, but that’s your interpretation of it. But you’re defining it in a way that does not address “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating —

MR. SNOW: Sure, it does.

Q — and degrading treatment” because you find that to be vague?

MR. SNOW: No, all of it is vague, and therefore, what you do is you try to provide some clarity by saying, here are the subset of behaviors that we think fall under those terms.

I think we’re talking past each other here —

Q No, I don’t — you’re certainly talking past the people who oppose you. And so maybe you can help the country understand, because I can’t imagine this is clear.

MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I don’t even understand the question. What exactly is it —

Q You claim — all right, I’ll restate the question. You claim that you are not redefining —

MR. SNOW: Right. Look at this —

Q — Article III. Everyone who opposes you on this, from Secretary Powell, to Senator Warner, to Senator Graham, to Senator McCain, says, in effect, you are trying to redefine it by excluding language you consider vague that they think is actually important.

MR. SNOW: No, no, no — oh, thank you, thank you. No, no, that’s — okay, thank you. No, we’re not excluding it. We’re defining what that language means, so, heart be still. No, the fact is the language is vague, and so nobody knows exactly what would be prohibited or not prohibited under it.


Q You do not address — you do not address the language that you think is vague, which is in Article III now, which has to do with outrages — MR. SNOW: No, you do. No — I don’t know how I can make it clearer. What you do is you say —

Q I hope you can, Tony. You may think I just don’t get it, but, I mean —

MR. SNOW: Well, I do. And here’s the —

Q Well, let me suggest to you that if I don’t get it, then I bet there’s a lot of people who don’t get it, as well.

MR. SNOW: Well, what’s interesting is that’s why we’re having briefings on the Hill, and it may be that the two sides are talking past each other because, again, the way you have to define cruel and inhumane is specifying which acts qualify as cruel and inhumane, correct? Is that not how you would do it in law?

Q I’m not a lawyer.

MR. SNOW: Well, no, you’ve been making a legal argument. Isn’t that the way you do it?

Q I’m not making any argument. I’m trying to get clarity.


Q Does that not invite other countries to do the same, to have other interpretations of Article III?

MR. SNOW: What it allows every country to do is to have an interpretation. Our European allies don’t have an interpretation.

Q And your critics say that’s bad for U.S. troops if you allow those kinds of interpretations.

We Never Torutred People Before

Q Tony, I’m confused. Everybody I talked to today on the Hill says, look, you’ve had the Geneva Conventions in place since 1947. This isn’t the Migratory Birds Treaty we’re talking about. This is the Geneva Conventions.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q And it’s a very simple argument. We don’t want to talk about the definition of amend or change, but that it stands on its own as written, hasn’t been tinkered with since 1947, doesn’t need to be tinkered with now.

So if that seems to be the position from a former JAG and a former POW and a former Secretary of the Navy, where’s the room to work anything out?


MR. SNOW: Well, that’s because Common Article III had never been construed as applying to any conflict in which the United States had ever been a party.


The reason nobody talked about this from 1948 is, it hadn’t come up. And there are times — you’ll be surprised to know —

Q There’s been a lot of wars.

MR. SNOW: But, you know what, Helen, it didn’t apply to most of those wars. It didn’t apply to most of those wars which is why people have not asked the questions.

Don’t Confuse Pony WIth The Letter of the Law

Q Tony, you say that you’re following the Geneva Conventions, but it seems, reading the Geneva Conventions, there are solutions to this problem. Why not go back to some of the resolutions that talk about the interpretation, various questions of the interpretation? “Resolution one: The conference recommends that in the case of a dispute relating to the interpretation or application of the present conventions, which cannot be settled by other means, the parties concerned endeavor to agree between themselves to refer such dispute to the International Court of Justice. Resolution two: Whereas circumstances may arise in the event of an outbreak of a future international conflict in which there would be no protecting power, who approves cooperation, and under true scrutiny, the conventions — the protection of victims of war can be applied.”

MR. SNOW: Well read.

Q Thank you.

MR. SNOW: Again, the International Court of Justice, as you know, was a topic of controversy earlier in this administration. It is our view that U.S. law — that we use U.S. law as the benchmark for determining our treaty obligations where it is unclear; and furthermore, that has been the practice of this country through many administrations and will continue to be.

Q Wait a minute — no, no, no, I want to follow up.

MR. SNOW: All right, please.

Q Why use U.S. law when this is an international convention, international document —

MR. SNOW: Because — precisely because you do — I think if you put before the American public: do you want international tribunals that do not acknowledge U.S. law and are not answerable to U.S. citizens to define what may happen to U.S. citizens, I think they would find that unreasonable and unjust. What we do try to do is take a look in observing our treaty obligations where there is settled law, and in this particular case there is no settled law. And I would refer you, for the more nuanced portions of your questions, to the lawyers who can go through chapter and verse.

Q But I find it kind of odd that you keep talking about you’re following international law, but you want to interject where it comes — where it suits you to follow your own law?

Coercing the JAG

MR. SNOW: Five judge advocates general from the Pentagon have signed a letter, released a letter. They sent it to Duncan Hunter, who is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and they also sent it to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And one of the things they said is, indeed, we think these provisions would be helpful to our fighting men and women at war on behalf of our country.

There’s kind of an amusing rumor making the rounds that they were coerced into doing this.


Q All right, the second question is, you kind of laughed off this rumor you said on Capitol Hill that the JAG had been coerced to write this letter.

MR. SNOW: JAGs, yes.

Q The officers, the JAG officers.

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q Senator Graham is telling reporters on Capitol Hill that the White House had them in a meeting for five hours last night and tried to force them to sign a prepared statement. And he said, reading this JAG letter they ended up writing leaves total ambiguity on interpretation. This is Senator Lindsey Graham. What’s your response to that?

MR. SNOW: It sounds like he’s talking there’s a detainee crisis.

Q Wait a minute, I think he deserves an answer, a real answer.

MR. SNOW: Well, here’s the answer — here’s the answer, the real answer is, go back and read the testimony from August.

Q Was there a meeting?

MR. SNOW: I don’t know if there — there was not a White House meeting — I don’t think so. I don’t think there was a White House meeting. I do know that they were asked to express in a letter the opinions that they had — that they had expressed in open committee, in testimony before the United States Senate — I believe it was the Judiciary Committee, maybe Armed Services — in August. I don’t know who asked.

Ask who — the thing is if you start going into who asked whom to write letters, I don’t know. We can ask each side. Here’s the important thing —

Q You say it wasn’t a White House meeting. Were there White House people there? Who called it together?

MR. SNOW: I don’t think so — I honestly — Martha, I’ll find out.

Q You’ve got to get us some clarity on that meeting.

Q It’s been reported that Jim Haynes, who is the counsel at the Pentagon, convened this meeting and got these guys to write this letter. And it’s something that they told people they didn’t agree with.

MR. SNOW: Well, I don’t think so because these — if it’s possible —

Q You don’t think so, or you know that’s not the case.

MR. SNOW: It’s not the case. They were asked to write a letter that reflected their views, and they edited and signed the letter. Furthermore —

Q Who asked them?

MR. SNOW: I honestly don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

Q You only know what didn’t happen.

Loved The World Over

Q But, yes, Colin Powell, what about his larger point, that the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis for the war on terror?

MR. SNOW: I don’t think so. Look at what happened on September 11th. You had Jacques Chirac sending regards this week. We’ve had a number of other people. I think everybody understands that the moral basis of the war on terror is that there are people who are determined not to abide by any of the standards of civilization. And they want to slaughter us, and they want to scare us, and they want to change the way the world works.

Q But this is the assertion of a former Secretary of State who was with the administration —

MR. SNOW: I understand that.

Q — at the outset of the war on terror. He is now, obviously, not part of the administration and it’s X number of years later, and he is looking at the world and saying, they’re having doubts.

MR. SNOW: Go ask him. I don’t want to read his mind. It’s worth having — you can ask Colin Powell precisely what he meant.


Q Outside Colin Powell’s mind, is that not an issue for this administration? Is that not something you should be thinking about?

MR. SNOW: Well, why do you think — why on earth, Martha, do you think we’re not taking such pains to try to be absolutely transparent and lay out for the entire world not only standards by which we conduct these things, but say to the rest of the world you’ve got to be precise —

Q But you said, “I don’t think so,” about moral basis, you didn’t think so because Jacques Chirac —

MR. SNOW: He said, “moral basis of the war on terror.” The moral basis of the war on terror is — I don’t think you’re going to try to claim moral equivalence between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. I don’t think you want to go there. And that is —

Q I don’t think I’d be going there.

Chimpy Doesn’t Give A Shit About The Troops

Q Can I follow up on this question here? Does the President share any of this sort of general concern you hear from folks like Powell and such that this does subject U.S. troops in the custody of other nations to harsher treatment —

MR. SNOW: Actually, no —

Q He doesn’t share that concern at all?

MR. SNOW: No, he doesn’t, because, again, the point here is that under — the problem we have right now is that there are no standards and anybody can do whatever they want; in some cases, maybe they are. If you lay out what’s going on, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, then everybody is off the same playbook.


Q I think it would be fair, then, for some people in the world to look at this process as a questioning of defining how close you can go to Common Article III before you reach cruel and inhuman, until you put that stuff into play in an interrogation?

MR. SNOW: Explain to me how that would work. Explain to me how they would draw that conclusion, because I don’t get it.

Q You don’t understand how someone could draw that conclusion?

MR. SNOW: No, I don’t.

Q By trying to create a definition of an article —

MR. SNOW: So what you would rather have is a law with no definitions so that people would go into the field not knowing whether they’re obeying or not obeying the law? I mean, that’s the whole point here. You’ve got to know what the law says; nobody knows.

Q That’s what you guys say is the point here. I’m saying people around the world could view this process very differently, and, frankly, through a much more sinister lens, that you’re actually —

MR. SNOW: Well, no, I think what you’re trying to do is to import a sinister — I don’t think — there’s nothing sinister about trying to say what the law is. Do you disagree?

Q It’s not for me to agree or disagree —

MR. SNOW: Well, wait a minute, of course you are, and what you’re doing is that you’re putting a highly cynical interpretation on what should be an open and transparent attempt to try to figure out what the rules are.

Q There are people — I think it’s fair to say there are people around the world who have questioned this administration’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions, starting with GITMO, some of the questions on POWs versus —

MR. SNOW: Would these people have visited GITMO? Would these people have firsthand experience with GITMO?

Q A lot of people have been through GITMO at this point, and seen it, and come away —

MR. SNOW: And you know what, it’s — a number of you have been down there. I mean, it was described by a recent delegation as a model prison.

Helen Remains Focused On Technique

Q Does the President think water-boarding and all of the other things that we saw at Abu Ghraib were cruel and inhumane —

MR. SNOW: You didn’t see water-boarding at Abu Ghraib. What you saw were violations that were immediately prosecuted and vigorously. What the President believes is you need to find ways to question people legally and save lives, and that remains his absolute determination.

Q But has he ruled out those measures?

MR. SNOW: I am not going to go into what’s ruled in or ruled out for the same reasons that we’ve discussed many times here.


Q But don’t you think most of the public thinks these are abusive treatments —

MR. SNOW: You know what I —

Q — of any human being?

MR. SNOW: I think what the public wants is safety. They want to beat the terrorists, and they want to keep our principles intact and that’s what we’re trying to do

Q You think they want abusive treatment?

MR. SNOW: No, they don’t want abusive treatment. That’s why we’re trying to define it.

Not Talking to Powell

Q Tony, you mentioned that you were not informed by Colin Powell in advance of his letter, and that he was confused. Has anybody reached out to him from this administration since the letter to unconfuse him?

MR. SNOW: I don’t know. I think — yes, I probably shouldn’t have said confused.

Q You did.

MR. SNOW: Might get another call with him. What I think is that there’s a misunderstanding about what the crux of it is, and therefore, I think it would be perfectly good to talk through and explain that we are not, in fact, trying to weaken or amend or change Common Article III.


Q Well, I’m sure he’s possibly watching this at home on television, wrapped — is anybody —

MR. SNOW: He’s waiting for your story tomorrow.

Q No doubt. Is anybody calling from the administration to give him a briefing, to tell him why he’s wrong, so he can’t put out a letter saying, gosh, I was wrong, I misunderstood?

MR. SNOW: I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe we ought to just set up a phone tree.

Rude to Les

Q Tony, I have a two part —

MR. SNOW: You know what, Les, let me say this. I want to stick with this stuff right now.

Q Okay, but will you come back?

MR. SNOW: I can’t wait.