In early september 2006, a tense crew of Senate Democrats gathered in S-211—the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room—at the U.S. Capitol. In all, there were fifteen of us, senior members of various committees, addressing difficult and timely issues during our monthly lunch meeting. In a few weeks, Americans would go to the polls and our party seemed to have a reasonable chance of regaining Congress for the first time in a dozen years. But no one seemed overconfident, and for good reason.
Room S-211 has a sense of seriousness and timelessness. It features marbleized walls, period window cornices, a chandelier installed during the Grant Administration, and the elaborate ceiling fresco of caryotid figures that it took the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi a decade (from 1857 to 1867) to complete. In that place of serious appointments, many heavy decisions have been made.
It is where LBJ, as Senate majority leader, twisted arms of fellow Democrats until they came around to his viewpoint. It is the venue where in 1959 Johnson promised my father, newly elected to the Senate, a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Forty-seven years later, in that historic room, I would try a little arm twisting of my own.
When Carl Levin’s turn to speak came, we prepared for the inevitable. Carl, one of the most respected members of the Senate and the highest- ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, addressed our political bind. But there were certain facts he didn’t need to review— we knew them too well.
President George W. Bush was looking for a way around his legal roadblock. Before the Supreme Court ruling that summer in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, he had seized unprecedented war powers, deciding that the Administration alone had the authority to determine how to treat prisoners in the war on terror.
He rejected domestic law and international treaties on methods of interrogation—a policy that led to allegations internationally that Americans endorse torture.
The president has maintained that the United States is in a state of war against terrorism, and therefore he has the authority to hold enemy combatants indefinitely without trial, formal charges, or revealment of evidence against them. For those detainees that he decided to try, he established military commissions. Appeals could not be made through the court system. There was no significant challenge to them until the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld reached the Supreme Court.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a native of Yemen, had been captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and then shipped to Guantánamo Bay, where he was held along with several hundred others. Hamdan was suspected of delivering weapons to Al Qaeda and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. Hamdan brought suit, arguing that the military commission formed to try him was illegal and that, as a defendant, he lacked the protections specified by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva conventions. The argument persuaded the lower court but not the federal court of appeals.
In its ruling, which by a 5–3 vote overturned the appeals court, the Supreme Court said among other things that the president needed the approval of Congress to pursue measures other than those expressly dictated by existing U.S. laws and treaties. The president’s quick response was to propose legislation that would have Congress rubber- stamp his initial practices—reinstating the commissions as originally structured and redefining the Geneva conventions by weakening its protections. He demanded a free hand in interrogations—a free hand, we knew from the examples of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret prisons around the globe, that was deeply troubling.
As the fifth anniversary of September 11 approached, the country was once again reminded of the treachery that can come from any direction at any time. Since that dreadful day in 2001, many Republicans have tried to paint Democrats as weak on defense. Any objections to the Iraq policy were portrayed as cowardly or even treasonous.
In a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2006, Karl Rove offered advice similar to what he delivered four years earlier in advance of the 2002 midterm elections: proclaim the Democrats weak on protecting America. Indeed, when Democrats pointed out, correctly, that National Security Agency warrentless wiretapping was illegal, Rove and his crowd twisted this fact for political advantage. The president was soon saying that Democrats were “opposed to listening in on terrorists.”
Sloganeering against the “cut-and-run” Democrats became a more reliable policy than any actual foreign policy. Starting the war in Iraq, as time proved, was a mistake, but the president stuck by his guns. I had been among those who voted to give him authorization, because at the time I believed the Administration’s characterization of the intelligence that raised the specter that Saddam Hussein already possessed or was actively pursuing a deadly stockpile for imminent use. I hoped that with my vote, the Administration would be able to present a strong case to the UN to aggressively support the UN inspections of Iraq in order to fully determine whether Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The Administration chose not to do so but instead went to war in Iraq. It soon became clear that the intelligence—hence, the primary reason to go to war—was wrong. And as the war became a heavy burden on America— drawing us, as it did, from a more sensible and effective strategy against worldwide terror—I and others worked to find ways to end it.
The president, however, tried to turn the Supreme Court defeat in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld into an offensive maneuver. As he saw it, it was a chance to solidify the Republican stance on terror. Carl Levin and others concluded that the best we as Democrats could do—with the elections so imminent—was to support a new compromise measure. The senatorial trio of John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham, all of them experienced in military matters, seemed to favor a reasonable plan for treatment of prisoners and retain elements of habeas corpus— a basic right that our justice system, and the international community of civilized countries, have held dear.
None of us thought the compromise suggested by the three senators was perfect, but the group as a whole seemed content to let the issue rest. This is the nature of politics: You push until you can push no further, and at the close of the Senate day, you are at least satisfied that you have helped steer the body from a ruinous course.
I had not, after all, parachuted into this fray. I had been involved in the fight for human rights ever since, as a freshman senator, I became a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1981. This was a natural extension of my father’s legacy at Nuremberg and of his priorities in the U.S. Senate. It was a result, too, of my Peace Corps service in the 1960s, when, in the Dominican Republic, I saw firsthand the results of oppression and became committed to addressing such issues.
The big human rights debates of the early 1980s centered on Latin America, where I focused much of my work. I developed relationships with key figures in hot-spot countries—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The U.S. political landscape at the time was charged in a way similar to what would happen years later in relation to Iraq.
President Reagan reduced the many volatile political situations in Central America to what he saw as a worldwide Communist plot, making the region a major focus of his foreign policy. The Soviet Union funneled arms and other resources to certain parties, and in President Reagan’s view, it was necessary to back those who stood against Communism, no matter their own records on human rights.
President Reagan, for example, wanted to send support to the government of El Salvador, led at the time by a civilian/military junta, which was fighting leftist guerillas. The government’s notorious death squads also targeted those who opposed its power. The archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, three American nuns, and a lay worker —all of whom supported economic and political reform—were gunned down. This was in an era of high political crimes throughout the region, from Argentina, where in the “Dirty War” thousands of dissidents disappeared, to Chile and to small villages of Central America.
I had seen all of this from a quite different perspective from President Reagan. To him, Communism was the issue. In American politics, such broad stances continued to play well with a significant segment of the public. Phil Gramm, the senator from Texas, weighed in during the debate on Nicaragua and whether to aid the contras in their rebellion against the leftist Sandinista government. To paraphrase my former colleague, he would often say that Nicaragua is only ten days by tank from Texas.
My own investigations made it clear to me that the excesses of power transcend political labels. The rule of law, on which my father’s stance was always firm, is the ultimate standard. Murder, in short, is still murder. The idea of simply sending unrestricted funding to anyone fighting Communism was, as Senator Edward M. Kennedy said, “giving a blank check to death squads and despotism.”
My view on Communist influence differed from that of my father’s—he had firmly believed in the domino theory, so prevalent in regard to Vietnam. But I recalled that in his later years he understood that there were ominous forces quite apart from anything supported by the Soviets.
In the case of El Salvador in the early 1980s, it was clear to me that the wisest stance for the United States was to send aid to that country’s government only if certain conditions were met. And so, as a freshman senator, I introduced an amendment to a foreign appropriations bill that tied such support to measures of human rights.
Political opponents called this effort naïve, particularly in that it was the idea of a Senate newcomer. But my experiences in Latin America had taught me otherwise, and I pressed on. A report in the New York Times on February 28, 1982, revealed the results: “In approving aid last fall, Congress, under Mr. Dodd’s prodding, made support for El Salvador conditional on a Presidential certification that the junta was making progress on human rights.”
This policy was not only correct for us but, moreover, proved useful to some of those in power in Central America. I remember my conversations with El Salvador’s leader, José Napoleón Duarte, who had come to Washington to lobby for support. In the years before his ascension to high office, he too had been victimized, imprisoned by a military dictatorship. Once in power, he had initiated land reforms and other progressive policies. Even so, death squads were still prevalent. He told me that my efforts to tie aid to human rights measures had actually helped him against his political opponents. There was now a standard that had to be met if the political power structure in the capital of San Salvador hoped to survive.
I thought of all this as the 2006 debates on President Bush’s tactics intensified. I recalled that although Democrats did not hold the White House or the Senate during the debates on Central America, they had still made a significant difference in foreign policy. I was determined to make that happen again.
During our lunch in the LBJ Room, I argued that if we were to go along with the compromise plan, and therefore lend our support to a policy that undermined the rule of law, we would one day regret our actions.
We were, in effect, rolling back the Magna Carta and undermining the Geneva conventions, the dramatic and humane precedent of Nuremberg.
We could regret such a move even more than we regretted our original support for the war in Iraq. I was concerned about the welfare of our own soldiers—what it would mean to those fighting this war and future wars—if we abandoned humane treatment. I was concerned, too, that information gained from unlawfully cruel treatment is not reliable. Even John McCain, whose patriotism has never been in question, admits that when things got bad enough during his more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he would tell his captors anything they wanted to hear.
My colleagues around the table did not dispute my points. They nodded approvingly. Patrick Leahy argued eloquently in support of them, saying that the Administration’s policy was “flagrantly unconstitutional.” But we were in a box. The election was coming up, and the Republicans would no doubt transform any reasonable defense of human rights into thirty-second spots that played to the fears of voters. We all knew this from painful experience.
I thought of my friend Max Cleland. In 2002, the senator from Georgia was ambushed by the lowest kind of political attack. Max was a Vietnam hero—a triple amputee in the war. He served with distinction in Congress, but just before the 2002 election he expressed opposition to labor restrictions in the president’s Homeland Security bill that unduly restrained the rights of U.S. citizens.
Though Max voted in favor of the bill, Republicans painted Max as a man who lacked the courage to be a leader in a time of crisis. In one television spot, images of Max and Osama bin Laden were presented in the same grainy way. The Republicans did this even though Cleland had certainly demonstrated his courage on the battlefield. That such a tactic worked disheartened us. I remember the reaction of Robert Byrd to the disgraceful campaign. The very senior senator from West Virginia had an incredulous look on his face and said, “Have they no shame? Have they no shame?”
I had no doubt that if we, as a group, had the audacity to take a firm stance against the commander in chief on the interrogation issue we’d get the same treatment.
But we also knew there was another side to this that transcended politics as usual. The stakes had become very high. What looked like a mere compromise was something else—an abandonment of principle.
In all of my time in Congress, I have been influenced by the lessons of what my father did in Nuremberg—and by his defense of principle. The trial that consumed him in 1945 and 1946 was the most important work of his life; he knew this even at the time, as he expressed in his letters.
He was among those who stood firmly on the side of the rule of law—of giving even the world’s most notorious criminals the right to examine fully the evidence against them and to defend themselves with every possible legal tool.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Letters from Nuremberg by Senator Christopher J. Dodd with Lary Bloom. Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Dodd. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.