By William Fisher
The Bush Administration's policies for treatment of prisoners in the
so-called "global war on terror" are being challenged by a consistently under-reported segment of America's "faith communities" - long dominated by right-wing televangelists such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
A coalition of more than 125 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other religious organizations - collectively known as NRCAT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture - is conducting an increasingly robust and sophisticated lobbying and grassroots action campaign to override an executive order by President Bush that permits the Central Intelligence Agency to use undefined "alternative interrogation techniques" in questioning alleged terror suspects.
According to NRCAT's organizer, Rev. George Hunsinger, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, "More than 20,000 people of faith have endorsed NRCAT's Statement of Conscience", entitled, "Torture is a Moral Issue."
Heading the coalition is Linda Gustitus, former Chief of Staff to Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan). Gustitus, a Washington attorney with 24 years of Capitol Hill experience, is a Unitarian and is also co-chair of the Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture (WRRCAT).
Coalition members include such prominent religious groups as Adventist Peace Fellowship, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, the Islamic Society of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Union for Reform Judaism, and the World Sikh Council - American Region.
The focus of the Coalition's campaign is passage of legislation known as the "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007," introduced in mid-February of this year by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct.). It would repeal portions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA). Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) in March.
Ms. Gustitus called the Bush Executive Order "another shameful step in the US treatment of detainees in the 'war on terror'." She said, "As people of faith -- who value our common humanity and our religious responsibility to treat all people with decency and the due process protections of civilized law -- we urge the President immediately to stop the use of interrogation techniques that are cruel and inhuman, to disclose what the "alternative interrogation techniques" are, to close all secret prisons, to stop rendition to countries that torture and to give the International Red Cross access to detainees held in U.S. custody. We call on Congress to prohibit the use of any CIA funds for programs or activities that fail to treat all persons detained with decency and the protections of due process."
The Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress in late 2006, defined and established enemy combatant status, laid out procedures for Military Commissions trying those charged by the US with criminal violations in association with the administration's "global war on terror," authorized the president to define what acts constitute torture, and eliminated the protection of habeas corpus for non-citizen detainees.
The NRCAT coalition is also supporting pending legislation that would restore habeas corpus authority to the federal courts to hear habeas petitions from US-held detainees, and a bill that would stop the practice of 'extraordinary rendition' in which detainees are secretly sent to countries that have a known history of prisoner torture and other human rights abuses.
While Congress departed for its August recess without acting on the Dodd and similar legislation, Rev. Hunsinger told Truthout that NRCAT "will push for action in the fall." However, he predicted that "it is most likely the Dodd bill will be addressed piecemeal, in specific items, as opposed to the whole bill."
The reason, according to Hunsinger, is that "the coalition's strategy of trying to attach the habeas restoration legislation to the Defense Department authorization bill did not work" because Senate Republicans "threatened to filibuster."
The DOD authorization bill is scheduled to come up again in September.
The Dodd legislation reasserts US adherence to the Geneva Conventions, assuring humane treatment for all prisoners, military and civilian; prohibits evidence obtained through torture to be used in court; returns the US to outlawing hearsay testimony and testimony obtained through coercion; holds accountable those who have authorized or committed acts of torture; removes the power of the President to decide who is an "enemy combatant"; and restores detainees' right of habeas corpus to challenge the reason for their imprisonment.
The Bush executive order, issued last month following a series of court defeats of Administration detention policies, prohibits the use of torture but allows the CIA to continue to use undefined and undisclosed "alternative interrogation techniques."
NRCAT chair Gustitus says this caveat "calls into question whether the prohibition is real." In addition, she says, the executive order "does not close secret prisons nor prohibit sending detainees to countries which have been known to use torture in interrogation (rendition to torture), nor assure that every detainee has access to the International Red Cross."
Among NRCAT's more remarkable members are a number of heavy-hitters who are members of the Christian evangelical community, which has often remained silent on issues such as detainee torture and rendition while focusing on its more customary hot-button "values" issues like abortion and gay marriage.
One of NRCAT's more prominent evangelicals is Dr. David P. Gushee, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University, a leading Baptist institution located in Jackson, Tennessee. Gushee is also co-chair of Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR).
Gushee was among a group of 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars who issued "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror" last month.
Writing "as Christians and US citizens," the Declaration's authors declared:
"We renounce the resort to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, call for the extension of procedural protections and human rights to all detainees, seek clear government-wide embrace of the Geneva Conventions, including those articles banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, and urge the reversal of any US government law, policy or practice that violates the moral standards outlined in this Declaration."
The Declaration was endorsed by board of the National Association of Evangelicals, a body claiming to represent 45,000 evangelical Protestant churches with 30 million members.
But it also drew sharp criticism from religious conservatives. Daniel R. Heimbach, a Southern Baptist professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the evangelical Declaration a "diatribe" that was "confused and dangerous," mainly because it failed to pinpoint exactly where coercive interrogation crossed into torture.
And Mark D. Tooley, a leader of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, charged that the Declaration was the work of "pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists" who were contributing to "a barely disguised crusade against the US war against terror."
But for the 17 drafters, the Declaration's foundation was "the sanctity of human life, a moral status irrevocably bestowed by the Creator upon each person."
The Declaration strongly commended the recent changes in the Army Field Manual specifying forbidden practices. But it criticized the Bush administration's successful effort, through the Military Commissions Act, to exempt the CIA from such prohibitions and from rigorous judicial and Congressional oversight, to limit habeas corpus, and to loosen rules on the use of evidence and to allow indefinite detention of those the Administration designates unlawful enemy combatants.
These provisions, the Declaration says, "violate basic principles of due process" and "create the conditions in which further prisoner abuse is made more likely."
Polling on torture and terrorism conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2004, 2005 and 2006 found that a small majority of the public held that torture of "suspected terrorists in order to gain important information" could "never" or "rarely" be justified.
The survey found that in every religious group, those who said they worshiped weekly appeared only slightly more restrictive toward torture than less observant believers. The poll data also showed that white evangelicals were somewhat more permissive toward torture than other religious groups.
But Gushee says growing endorsement of EHR's Declaration "may mark the beginning of the triumph of 'Christ' over 'culture' on this issue in politically and theologically conservative America. Torture (or euphemisms for torture) cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the Scriptures."
Whether NRCAT can translate its theological position into successful political action remains to be determined after the August Congressional recess. If Capital Hill know-how was the key, the coalition might be home free. But influential politicians and powerful political forces promise a difficult uphill climb for NRCAT and its allies.
The obstacles include: Democrats do not have the super-majorities required to pass the Dodd bill and similar legislation in either the House or the Senate. The fall agendas in both House and Senate are already larger than the available time. Influential conservative Republican legislators such as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a former military lawyer and judge, have vowed to block any attempt to amend the Military Commissions Act. Democrats, looking toward the 2008 election, are unlikely to want to risk a Bush veto and charges that they are "soft on terrorism" and other national security concerns.
Given those conditions, many are doubtful that the 110th Congress will
make any meaningful progress on issues related to prisoner detention and interrogation.