Bush Gets Testy About Torture

President Bush held a rare press conference on Thursday, June 10, after the G8 conference in Sea Island, Georgia. He wanted to talk about how successful the meeting was, which it wasn’t. Earlier in the week the UN endorsed the new Iraqi interim government, which Bush hoped to follow with commitments of resources from other members of the G8, but nobody offered any more troops or money. Last year Bush told the world that the US was willing to go on this crusade alone, and, with the exception of Great Britain, Italy, and the few other members in the Coalition of the Killing, the rest of the world seems content to let that condition continue.

Reporters at the press conference were more interested in Bush’s involvement in the growing torture scandal than the failed G-8. One brought it up and Bush said he told people to behave legally. He didn’t address the question, which had to do with his administration’s interpretation of “legal” behavior in such matters. Some other reporters asked other questions, then a second reporter tried to pin him down on if and when he’d authorize torture. He again said he’d stay within the law. A couple of slowball questions came along and then a third reporter said that his legal advisers seem to have concluded that torture was permissible, so the real question went not to interpretations of laws but the morality of torture. The born-again-redeemed-loved-by-God Bush wouldn’t go there at all. His answer was addled and testy.

It was European reporters who seemed most interested in pressing Bush on the torture issue, and who were not at all impressed with his continuing assertions that he was telling people to act in terms of the law. Bush has no knowledge of history, but European reporters do, and all of them at the G-8 press conference were no doubt aware how assiduously Hitler got laws passed to authorize everything he did. Hitler’s government and its actions were all legal; it was a defect in moral vision that undergirded their atrocities.

Nothing about the torture questions appeared in the New York Times or any of the other major US newspapres, but European papers were full of it. Neither did the US press report that after Bush spoke, Jacques Chirac said that in the war on terrorism we should not “forget the principles on which our civilization rests, such as human rights.”

Here are the torture parts of Bush’s G-8 press conference:

First time Bush was asked about legalizing torture:

Q Mr. President, the Justice Department issued an advisory opinion last year declaring that as Commander-in-Chief you have the authority to order any kind of interrogation techniques that are necessary to pursue the war on terror. Were you aware of this advisory opinion? Do you agree with it? And did you issue any such authorization at any time?

THE PRESIDENT: No, the authorization I issued, David, was that anything we did would conform to U.S. law and would be consistent with international treaty obligations. That’s the message I gave our people.

Q Have you seen the memos?

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t remember if I’ve seen the memo or not, but I gave those instructions.

Second time Bush was asked about legalizing torture:

Q Returning to the question of torture, if you knew a person was in U.S. custody and had specific information about an imminent terrorist attack that could kill hundreds or even thousands of Americans, would you authorize the use of any means necessary to get that information and to save those lives?

THE PRESIDENT: Jonathan, what I’ve authorized is that we stay within U.S. law.

Third time Bush was asked about legalizing torture:

Q Mr. President, I wanted to return to the question of torture. What we’ve learned from these memos this week is that the Department of Justice lawyers and the Pentagon lawyers have essentially worked out a way that U.S. officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law. So when you say that you want the U.S. to adhere to international and U.S. laws, that’s not very comforting. This is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, I’m going to say it one more time. If I — maybe — maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at those laws, and that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions out of — from me to the government.

Click here for the complete White House transcript of the June 10 press conference.

Click here for the June 11 Le Monde article (in French) about Bush’s torture responses at the G8 and Chirac’s comment in response, “Le scandale des tortures enfle et menace d’atteindre George Bush.

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at SUNY Buffalo. He edits the web journal Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu


Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo