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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Posted April 24, 2009 | 03:24 PM (EST)

Torturing The Guilty vs. Abusing the Innocent


Most attention these days has focused on revelations that administration officials sanctioned torture for "high value" Al Qaeda operatives.

That's important but another moral issue is as crucial, and in some ways more morally clear-cut: As part of the war on terror, the U.S. government routinely detained people for years without knowing if they were guilty of anything.

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, explained that American officials embraced a view that if they gathered up enough people, and kept them around long enough, some were bound to have some useful information: "as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential."

Please ponder that line from a very high level Bush administration insider: "the detainees' innocence was inconsequential."

According to a report by several human rights groups, "of the more than 770 individuals known to
have been incarcerated for some period at Guantánamo, the U.S. government has charged only 23 with war crimes as of October 2008."

In other words, 97% of people detained -- sometimes for years, sometimes under cruel conditions -- were not deemed to have done anything wrong.

If there's going to be an investigation, it should be as much about figuring out how someone's innocence became "inconsequential."