Commentary: Why holy silence on torture?

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  Jan. 6, 2005 at 1:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- It seems like only yesterday that conservative groups, particularly conservative religious groups, were rallying to stop the possible nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to the Supreme Court.

Some on the right were unconvinced of Gonzales' total opposition to abortion rights.

But now that President George W. Bush has nominated him to succeed Attorney General John Ashcroft, Gonzales is facing increasing criticism from the left because of his alleged role in approving "aggressive" interrogation techniques for terror suspect detainees.

And some on the right, including the religious right, appear to be rallying around him, brushing aside allegations he paved the way for torture.

The original conservative unhappiness with Gonzales centered on his tenure as a Texas Supreme Court justice in 1999 and 2000.

Gonzales joined four other state justices in an opinion that eventually allowed a 17-year-old pregnant woman to abort her fetus during the second trimester, despite a state law signed by Bush when he was governor that required parental notification in most such cases.

The majority opinion helped reshape what was considered the "mature and well-informed standard for a 17-year-old to seek an abortion without parent consent."

Gonzales also was blasted for his criticism of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, who dissented in the parental-notification case. The highly conservative Owen, you remember, was nominated by Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Senate Democrats blocked her nomination the first time around, but Bush has resubmitted her nomination along with 11 other judicial nominees previously blocked by Democrats.

When Gonzales was named by Bush as White House counsel in one of the first appointments of the administration, he was criticized as the "stealth" liberal at the executive mansion -- drawing comparisons to Justice David Souter, who was criticized as a "stealth" conservative when named to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 because there was little on the record showing his judicial philosophy. Instead, Souter turned out to be a liberal on the closely divided court.

The mere possibility that Gonzales could be named to the high court drew strong criticism from the religious right, particularly James Dobson of Colorado-based Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family, however, has largely refrained from criticizing Gonzales' nomination as attorney general, only issuing a statement saying its members expected Gonzales to fight in court to save the federal ban on "partial-birth" abortions and to aggressively prosecute obscenity cases.

Another conservative religious group, the Christian Coalition of America, earlier called on its "activists to contact their United States Senators to urge them to vote to confirm Judge Alberto Gonzales as the new Attorney General. Left-wing groups are already forming a coalition to defeat this highly-qualified man to be America's top law enforcement officer."

The religious right has been strangely silent, however, about Gonzales' alleged role in allowing U.S. interrogation of some terror detainees with techniques that critics say is torture.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, has demanded that Gonzales be questioned during confirmation about "his May 16, 2004, memo, authored in his capacity as White House counsel, which described certain legal protections guaranteed in the Geneva Conventions to persons captured during military hostilities as 'obsolete' and 'quaint.' His confirmation hearings should also examine in detail Mr. Gonzales' approval of the now-disavowed Justice Department memoranda that condoned the torture and incommunicado and indefinite detention of detainees captured during the Afghanistan conflict."

Bush disavowed the memo when it became public last summer, and the Justice Department publicly ordered its Office of Legal Counsel to withdraw it and construct a new advisory. The new advisory was posted without fanfare on the Justice Department's Web site Dec. 30.

The new memorandum says U.S. law defines torture as the infliction of "severe physical or mental pain and suffering (other than pain and suffering incidental to lawful acts)." It notes that U.S. law implementing the international Convention Against Torture calls for a fine and up to 20 years in prison for the infliction or attempted infliction of torture "outside the United States" and up to life in prison or the death penalty if the torture turns out to be lethal.

Which means the White House, the Justice Department, some Republican leaders and even Gonzales have recognized the importance of the issue and the necessity of getting beyond the controversy as he faces confirmation as attorney general.

Everyone, it seems, has taken a stand on the torture issue, except for conservative religious groups, who spoke out with such genuine concern when the issue was abortion.

Where is Focus on the Family? Where, for that matter, is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? The conference condemned torture but has been silent on the Gonzales nomination and whether he should give a full accounting of what went on.

Again, the silence from that front has been deafening.


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