Friday, August 01, 2003

The taking of hostages in Iraq by the Americans raises a number of issues, some of which go well beyond the incident itself:

  1. Despite some tortured arguments I've read on the internet, there does not seem to be any doubt that the hostage taking described breaches international law and American law. The incident was described in the Washington Post as follows:

    "Col. David Hogg, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, said tougher methods are being used to gather the intelligence. On Wednesday night, he said, his troops picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general. They left a note: 'If you want your family released, turn yourself in.' Such tactics are justified, he said, because, 'It's an intelligence operation with detainees, and these people have info.' They would have been released in due course, he added later.

    The tactic worked. On Friday, Hogg said, the lieutenant general appeared at the front gate of the U.S. base and surrendered."

    Article 1(1) of the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, which the United States has ratified, states (my emphasis):

    "Any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure or to continue to detain another person (hereinafter referred to as the "hostage") in order to compel a third party, namely, a State, an international intergovernmental organization, a natural or juridical person, or a group of persons, to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage commits the offence of taking of hostages ("hostage-taking") within the meaning of this Convention."

    What Col. David Hogg described clearly falls under Article 1(1). It is no excuse to say that it was some kind of prank, or that the Americans intended to release the hostages. Obviously, hostage takers often intend to release their hostages (unless they intend to become murderers), so intention to release them if allowed as a defense would render the law meaningless. There is also no exception in the Convention for hostage taking used as a method of intelligence gathering. The fact that this sort of thing often happens is also no excuse.

  2. My understanding of the attack on Iraq was that the Pentagon had a phalanx of lawyers on call 24/7 to render instant opinions on the legality of various actions by the American military. If these lawyers were called upon here, it is startling that they would approve such a clear violation of international law. What is perhaps even more startling is that they would approve this sort of boasting to journalists. It is one thing to breach international law - it is quite another to crow about it.

  3. The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages is listed on the United Nations web site as being one of "12 major multilateral conventions and protocols related to states' responsibilities for combating terrorism." It is clearly a weapon in the 'war on terror', and useful in particular to Americans who are most likely to be the victims of hostage taking in countries outside of the United States. So why would the Bush Administration have the Pentagon run roughshod over it? What happens the next time the Americans attempt to obtain some international cooperation to free American hostages? Do other countries pretend to help, but without any enthusiasm as they know that the United States is a hypocrite with respect to the issue of hostages?


A distinct pattern is beginning to emerge in the disconnect between the words and deeds of the Bush Administration. Bush has justified horrible and unconstitutional breaches of civil liberties in the United States, and two wars (with more to come), the second of which was clearly illegal under international law, all on fighting the 'war on terror' precipitated by the attack on September 11. On the other hand, every action the Administration takes either increases the chances of terror or thwarts the ability of Americans to fight against terrorism. We have now seen the following:

  • huge increases in restrictions on civil liberties, which run the gamut from inconveniencing people at airports to unconstitutional permanent detention without habeas corpus or even access to a lawyer, all of which have provided not the slightest increase in real security from terrorism;

  • two massive unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, widely and probably correctly seen as cruelly unjust by much of the world and guaranteed to lead to the production of many more anti-American terrorists (after 9-11, Americans asked 'Why do they hate us?' - is the answer not completely clear now?);

  • the complete flouting of international law and decorum, with thugs like Perle, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld resorting to name calling of those countries who resisted the attack on Iraq because they did not believe the now completely refuted lies of the Bush Administration used to monger war, with Americans now expressing surprise at the refusal of most countries to contribute troops to help the Americans and the British beat up the Iraqi people;

  • American cowboy unilateralism reducing the international cooperation required for the United States to protect its citizens from terrorist attack;

  • in particular, as described by Seymour Hersh, the intentional destruction of the burgeoning American relationship with Syria, a relationship which was providing the CIA with much of its best intelligence on al Qaeda due to the incomparable inside information of the Syrians on the Muslim Brotherhood, and a relationship which was destroyed due to the Americans demanding that the Syrians support the attack on Iraq, and stop supporting Hezbollah (as a particular favor for Israel), both of which were politically impossible in a Syria that was attempting slowly to move to a pro-American stance;

  • an attack on Iraq which has preoccupied American intelligence experts and strategists, and drained billions and billions of dollars which could have been used on the war on terror (not to mention the building of schools and hospitals in the United States);

  • military assets and intelligence agents which were being used in the hunt for al Qaeda and bin Laden literally moved to fight the attack on Iraq (remember that this was one of the dangers that was raised by opponents of the attack on Iraq, only to receive assurances from the Bush Administration that Iraq would never distract them from the war on terror);

  • completely bonkers Bush tax policy, with a starving of tax revenues to the states, resulting in eventual cutbacks to the real anti-terrorist workers in police forces, fire departments and hospitals;

  • an attack on Iraq which has destroyed one of al Qaeda's biggest enemies (Saddam was a secularist bulwark against the fundamentalism we will now start to see take over Iraq), provided the framework for a new jihad ousting the Crusaders from Iraq (and we are already seeing mujahedeen heading to Iraq to fight the Americans), and increasing the prestige of al Qaeda and the terrorist threat from Islamic fundamentalism;

  • an attack on Iraq advertised as a preemptive strike against a country with nuclear weapons - a claim we know now to be another Bush lie - which has encouraged states on the verge of having real nuclear weapons, North Korea and perhaps Iran, to accelerate their programs knowing that the only defense against an increasingly insane United States is to actually have such weapons;

  • consistent pandering to the most outrageous ideas of militant Zionism as personified by Ariel Sharon, the most recent of which is the complete kowtowing of Bush to Sharon's Wall, an issue that enrages much of the rest of the world and serves as a catalyst for extreme anti-American ideas;

  • the conclusions by experts examining the events of September 11 that the United States is not one iota more secure from terrorism than it was then;

  • petty but instructive things, like announcing the heightened threat of new attacks using airplanes and almost simultaneously announcing the end of the air marshal program because they didn't want to pay for hotel rooms for the air marshals (but a billion or two a day in Iraq is no problem!), a policy they had to reverse when they realized the bad optics of the timing of the announcements.


Given all this, Wolfowitz has the audacity - the utter audacity! - to try to shift the justification for the attack on Iraq from the lies of the Bush Administration told before the attack to making it appear to be a security issue: "Getting rid of the Hussein regime for good is not only in the interest of the Iraqi people, it enhances the security of Americans." But it clearly doesn't enhance the security of Americans. Over and over again we see the Bush Administration use security concerns as a method of frightening people into going along with their lousy plans, all the while doing nothing to actually stop terrorism and in fact taking actions which will guarantee an increased threat of terror to America.

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