[Ed Note: Graphic NSFW images below the fold.]

As I write this, I’m watching president George W. Bush grant pardon to Stars and Stripes in 2003, on a television show about turkey. At the same time, I’m reading about another who seeks something like a pardon from president Bush, and pondering the irony that the prisoner should have to seek anything from someone whose crimes — the number and nature of which vary depending on whom you ask — outnumber his own and outweigh them in seriousness.

Not to mention who has the bigger body-count.

His name is bound to inspire fits of apoplexy, and plenty of people won’t read any further once he’s mentioned. His name is John Walker Lindh.

Well, he’s not asking for pardon so much as asking the Bush administration to commute his sentence.

John Walker Lindh

The man dubbed the “Taliban American” is asking the president to commute the remaining years of his federal prison sentence, according to a statement released by his attorneys Wednesday.

John Walker Lindh, a 27-year-old Californian, has served seven years of a 20-year sentence after being captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

He joined the Taliban to fight in the country’s civil war one month before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, according to the statement.

He originally was indicted on 10 charges, including conspiring to kill American citizens, but the U.S. Justice Department dismissed terrorism-related charges in 2002.

Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons while fighting the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. Along with the plea, he signed a gag order that prevented him from doing interviews.

His name once inspired an almost orgiastic bloodlust and passionate calls for vengeance from Americans like Ann Coulter, who once made this famous statement about Lindh (and the left).

“When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Like a lot of Americans, I suspect, I’d nearly forgotten about Lindh before reading this article. Following his capture in Afghanistan in 2001 — and again during his trial in 2002 — his name, visage and varied versions of his story were everywhere. He was very nearly the “Hanoi Jane” of the post-9/11 period. He was the stand-in for and step-child of the “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” He was a “misguided Marin County hot-tubber,” led astray by everything from a liberal upringing, to his parents divorce, his fathers homosexuality, and the very place his parents chose to bring him up.

In December 2001, the memories of September 11th attacks were fresh, the dust was still settling at Ground Zero, and clean-up and recovery efforts were just beginning. By early and mid-2002, were were being sufficiently softened up to believe that Iraq had some vague or direct connection to the 9/11 attacks, and was ready to attack again at any moment. It’s safe to say we were a very different country then; one wounded, thirsty for blood, and hungry for some kind of vengeance. John Walker Lindh was red meat, found and flung in our direction.

Seven years after 9/11 and after the first images of Lindh appeared, we may be a different country than we were then. How much we have changed remains to be seen. But now we all know things now that some of us didn’t know — but could have and should have — then.

We know that there were no WMDs. We know that there were no ties between Saddam and al Qaeda. And we know that the Bush administration knew it before we ever invaded Iraq, and lied and manipulated us into war anyway. (Yet somehow we remain dangerously vulnerable to WMD attacks, )

We know that the planning for postwar scenario was minimal to non-existent, and how Iraqis suffered as a consequence. We know that despite billions spent, Iraq’s reconstruction has been a miserable failure. We know that contractors made off with hundreds of billions for work never done or shoddily done. We know that the infrastructure situation in Iraq remains dire, after five years of occupation.

And what do we know of John Walker Lindh and his actions seven years ago? We know that eight of the the charges against him — to which he pleaded not guilty — were dropped in 2002, including:

  • Conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals
  • Two counts of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations
  • Two counts of providing material support and resources to terrorist organizations
  • One count of supplying services to the Taliban
  • Conspiracy to contribute services to Al Qaeda
  • Contributing services to Al Qaeda
  • Conspiracy to supply services to the Taliban
  • Using and carrying firearms and destructive devices during crimes of violence

We know that of those then charges, all but two — serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons — were dropped by the Justice department in 2002, lacking evidence that Lindh had joined Al Qaeda or conspired to kill Americans.

The list of charges against him was whittled down to this:

  • Conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals
  • Two counts of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations
  • Two counts of providing material support and resources to terrorist organizations
  • One count of supplying services to the Taliban
  • Conspiracy to contribute services to Al Qaeda
  • Contributing services to Al Qaeda
  • Conspiracy to supply services to the Taliban
  • Using and carrying firearms and destructive devices during crimes of violence

To which he pleaded guilty, and received a 20-year sentence as part of a deal with then-head of the criminal division of the Department of Justice Michael Chertoff. The deal, which also prohibits Lindh from making any public statements during his 20-year sentence, was made in part to avoid Lindh’s confession being excluded as having been made under durress, and so that Lindh would not testify about what he said was done to him.

He was the first.

The first American to get Abu-Ghraibed, long before Americans knew they were capable of such an exotic verb. The first to inspire Donald Rumsfeld to issue the order “Take the gloves off,” and the first to be on the order’s receiving end. The first to be denied medical treatment, the first photographed naked and bound, the first taunted while blindfolded, the first–certainly the first–to have SHITHEAD scrawled on his blindfold, the first whose digital photos made their way round the world as souvenirs, the first denied access to the Red Cross, the first to be ushered into a legal limbo created ex nihilo by the administration’s notions of executive power. He served as a test case for an administration eager to see what it could get away with, and what it tried to get away with was, well, this: His father hired him a lawyer as soon as he saw his son on MSNBC. The lawyer immediately wrote to John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and George Tenet and informed them that John Walker Lindh had counsel, and counsel was ready to fly to Afghanistan to meet him. They did not write him back, but John Ashcroft did not believe he was obliged to. He operated on the theory that John Walker Lindh had a lawyer only if he, not his father, hired one, even though at the time John Walker Lindh was blindfolded and duct-taped naked to a stretcher in Afghanistan. He was being held in a shipping container, and he had a bullet in his thigh, and by the time an FBI agent interrogated him, the bullet had been in his thigh for nearly two weeks and the wound was starting to stink. “Of course, there are no lawyers here,” the agent told him, and two days after he gave his statement, he was moved to a ship in the Arabian Sea and the bullet was finally extracted.

If Lindh’s description of his interrogation and treatment after his capture is true, then we know he was the first; the first to be stripped of his rights under the Geneva convention; the test case for what the administration could get away with; the first to enter a “gray zone,” outside of any law, where almost anything could be done.

Rumsfeld reacted in his usual direct fashion: he authorized the establishment of a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate “high value” targets in the Bush Administration’s war on terror. A special-access program, or sap-subject to the Defense Department’s most stringent level of security-was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps. America’s most successful intelligence operations during the Cold War had been saps, including the Navy’s submarine penetration of underwater cables used by the Soviet high command and construction of the Air Force’s stealth bomber. All the so-called “black” programs had one element in common: the Secretary of Defense, or his deputy, had to conclude that the normal military classification restraints did not provide enough security.

…In theory, the operation enabled the Bush Administration to respond immediately to time-sensitive intelligence: commandos crossed borders without visas and could interrogate terrorism suspects deemed too important for transfer to the military’s facilities at Guant’anamo, Cuba. They carried out instant interrogations-using force if necessary-at secret C.I.A. detention centers scattered around the world. The intelligence would be relayed to the sap command center in the Pentagon in real time, and sifted for those pieces of information critical to the “white,” or overt, world.

Fewer than two hundred operatives and officials, including Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were “completely read into the program,” the former intelligence official said. The goal was to keep the operation protected. “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness,” he said. “The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’ ”

We’ve looked into the center of that heart of darkness.

We know how dark that heart was, and how dark it remains.

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged-“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

The government consultant said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything-including spying on their associates-to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow.

We know that dark heart continue to grow, and included secret chambers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know those dark chambers have held many innocent Iraqis, and still hold many innocent Iraqis. We know that in the Iraqi justice system, justice is short supply. We know that some of those Iraqis were children, and we’ve been told about what they may have suffered, and what they may still suffer.

We know that it extended into a network of of arteries that transferred detainees to locations along an archipelago of secret chambers stretching all the way “black sites” in middle eastern countries and former Soviet states.

We know that archipelago includes an island close to home. Thanks to the the FBI, a letter from a former British prisoner, and the confession of a guard, we know some of what has gone on there. We know even more, since the manual has been leaked online. We may yet know more, now that the Supreme Court has reinstated a lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and 10 other administration officials.

We’ve known since April 2008 that some top Bush aides pushed for torture techniques.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff from 2001 to 2005, wrongly believed that inmates at Guantánamo and other prisons were protected by the Geneva conventions and from abuse tantamount to torture.

The way he was duped by senior officials in Washington, who believed the Geneva conventions and other traditional safeguards were out of date, is disclosed in a devastating account of their role, extracts of which appear in today’s Guardian.

…The lawyers, all political appointees, who pushed through the interrogation techniques were Alberto Gonzales, David Addington and William Haynes. Also involved were Doug Feith, Rumsfeld’s under-secretary for policy, and Jay Bybee and John Yoo, two assistant attorney generals.

We know now that responsibility goes all the way to the top of the Bush administration.

A bipartisan panel of senators has concluded that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the most comprehensive critique by Congress of the military’s interrogation practices, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report yesterday that accuses Rumsfeld and his deputies of being the authors and chief promoters of harsh interrogation policies that disgraced the nation and undermined U.S. security. The report, released by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contends that Pentagon officials later tried to create a false impression that the policies were unrelated to acts of detainee abuse committed by members of the military.

“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own,” the report states. “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”

The report is the most direct refutation to date of the administration’s rationale for using aggressive interrogation tactics — that inflicting humiliation and pain on detainees was legal and effective, and helped protect the country. The 25-member panel, without one dissent among the 12 Republican members, declared the opposite to be true.

We have what amounts to a confession from Cheney.

The outgoing US vice-president, Dick Cheney, last night gave an unapologetic assessment of his eight years in office, defending the invasion of Iraq, the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, secret wiretapping and the extreme interrogation method known as waterboarding.

In his first television interview since the presidential election in November, Cheney displayed no regrets and gave no ground to his many critics within America and around the world. He summed up his record by saying: “I think, given the circumstances we’ve had to deal with, we’ve done pretty well.”

He told ABC News he stood by the most controversial policies of the Bush administration, and urged president-elect Barack Obama to think hard before undoing them. Asked about the use of torture on terror suspects, he replied: “We don’t do torture. We never have. It’s not something this administration subscribes to.”

Later in the same interview, Cheney was asked whether the use of waterboarding in the interrogation of the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, had been appropriate. He replied: “I do.”

Given all that we know, whose crimes — in the end — are worse? Who needs pardon more?

Better question. Who really should be prosecuted?

Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush’s most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.

Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

The report shows how actions by these men “led directly” to what happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in secret C.I.A. prisons.

…We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened — and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military’s current ban on activities like waterboarding.

A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

Who, having commited worse crimes than those for which Lindh pleaded guilty, stands in defiance of any law or justice?

Dick Cheney has publicly confessed to ordering war crimes. Asked about waterboarding in an ABC News interview, Cheney replied, “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared.” He also said he still believes waterboarding was an appropriate method to use on terrorism suspects. CIA Director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency waterboarded three al-Qaeda suspects in 2002 and 2003.

US courts have long held that waterboarding, where water is poured into someone’s nose and mouth until he nearly drowns, constitutes torture. Our federal War Crimes Act defines torture as a war crime punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty if the victim dies.

Under the doctrine of command responsibility, enshrined in US law, commanders all the way up the chain of command to the commander in chief can be held liable for war crimes if they knew or should have known their subordinates would commit them and they did nothing to stop or prevent it.

Why is Cheney so sanguine about admitting he is a war criminal? Because he’s confident that either President Bush will preemptively pardon him or President-elect Obama won’t prosecute him.

Why won’t we prosecute any of the men involved?

The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were our response to feelings of vulnerability and collective humiliation after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They were a way to exorcise through reciprocal violence what had been done to us.

Collective humiliation is also the driving force behind al-Qaida and most terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden cites the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab humiliation. He attacks the agreement for dividing the Muslim world into “fragments.” He rails against the presence of American troops on the soil of his native Saudi Arabia. The dark motivations of Islamic extremists mirror our own.

…The civilization we champion and promote as superior is, in fact, a product of the fusion of traditions and beliefs of the Orient and the Occident. We advance morally and intellectually when we cross these cultural lines, when we use the lens of other cultures to examine our own. The remains of villages destroyed by our bombs, the dead killed from our munitions, leave us too with bloody hands. We can build a new ethic only when we face our complicity in the cycle of violence and terror.

The fantasy of an enlightened West that spreads civilization to a savage world of religious fanatics is not supported by history. The worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated by highly industrialized nations. Muslims, including Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, have a long way to go before they reach the body count of the secular regimes of the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Chinese communists. It was, in fact, the Muslim-led government in Bosnia that protected minorities during the war while the Serbian Orthodox Christians carried out mass executions, campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing that left 250,000 dead.

Those who externalize evil and seek to eradicate that evil through violence lose touch with their own humanity and the humanity of others. They cannot make moral distinctions. They are blind to their own moral corruption. In the name of civilization and high ideals, in the name of reason and science, they become monsters. We will never free ourselves from the self-delusion of the “war on terror” until we first vanquish the terrorist within.

We might have to prosecute ourselves.

And we may not get a pardon.

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