By Nat Hentoff
Presidential press secretary Tony Snow is certainly personable. As former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry says: “Tony has chilled the White House press corps, and that,” McCurry told the New York Post, “is some Snow job, if you ask me.” But Snow has also been a credible journalist – including after he served as a speechwriter and media adviser for President George H.W. Bush.
Snow has also been a successful syndicated columnist, as well as appearing regularly in USA Today and stints as editorial-page editor of the Detroit News and The Washington Times. Most recently, he’s worked as a host and commentator at the Fox News Channel. I’ve long respected his work and recognize that a presidential spokesman cannot publicly rebut his boss.
However, if Snow intends to eventually return to journalism, there are limits to how much credibility capital he can spend in his present job.
On June 7, he assured this nation and the world: “The United States does not condone torture. Furthermore, we will not agree to send anybody to a nation or place that practices torture.”
That’s like saying, with a straight face, that the Earth is flat. On July 5, Italian prosecutors arrested two Italian intelligence officials on charges of complicity with the CIA kidnapping of an imam, Hussan Mustafa Nasr, from a street in Milan – resulting in the CIA “rendition” of Nasr to Egypt, where he was tortured.
Moreover, an Italian investigating judge has activated a criminal case against 22 CIA members of the kidnapping ring, who left behind, in expensive hotels, bountiful evidence of their operation. Arrest warrants have been issued.
Also, on June 6, the 46-nation Council of Europe – which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights – released an extensively, carefully documented 76-page report, which I have, on the collusion of a number of European countries with CIA agents who, contrary to Tony Snow, do indeed send terrorism suspects to countries known (in our own State Department reports) for torturing their prisoners.
Included, in what the Financial Times called a “devastating” Council of Europe account of the CIA’s extra-legal adventures, are flight logs of planes used by the CIA; interviews with those victims eventually released; and information from present and former members of intelligence agencies in European countries.
Then – after the stunning June 29 Supreme Court decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which reversed, among other “unitary executive” policies of this administration, the president’s bypassing Congress in setting the procedural rules for military commissions at Guantanamo Bay – Snow again addressed us and the world.
Of the Supreme Court’s requirement that the administration must at last observe Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of detainees – instead of our abuses of them – Snow said blithely that “It is not really a reversal of policy.”
But even the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal – a staunch defender of the commander in chief’s policies on detainees and other unilateral actions in the war on terror – admitted that this decision was a “major Court intrusion into executive war powers and thus a setback not only for this Presidency but, more important, for future ones.”
Sounds like quite a reversal of policy to me.
Ruefully agreeing with the Wall Street Journal was John Yoo, the chief architect of the administration’s insistence after Sept. 11 that to protect national security, the president alone decides what the law is.
Professor Yoo, now back at the University of California Law School at Berkeley, was at the Justice Department while this core administration policy was detailed in a series of memoranda. It was Yoo who convinced a cadre of presidential lawyers that Congress could not “place limits on the president’s determination as to any terrorist threat ... These decisions under our Constitution are for the president to make.”
After the Supreme Court vigorously decided otherwise in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a disappointed Yoo said that this decision “could affect detention conditions, interrogation methods, the use of torture. It could affect every aspect of the war on terror.” Those are certainly policy reversals.
In the present intense debate inside Congress on how to write legislation conforming to Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that will not be reversed by the Supreme Court, retired U.S. Navy judge advocate general Adm. John Hutson – testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 13 – said of the Supreme Court standard on evidence in future trials of terrorism suspects:
“What you can’t do, I think, is say to the accused, we know you’re guilty. We can’t tell you why, but there’s a guy – we can’t tell you who – who told us something, we can’t tell you what. But you’re guilty..”
Press secretary Snow will be asked about such problems in admissible evidence in accordance with the Supreme Court, our own laws and the Geneva Conventions. Answers won’t be easy, but he is a trained journalist.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including “The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance” (Seven Stories Press, 2003).
Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.