The whitewasher in chief

Vice President Cheney dubs Guant

By Mark Follman
Published June 14, 2005 1:08PM (EDT)

The debate continues over whether allegations of abuse at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now make it a serious liability. Some Republicans have begun to think so, and late last week the Bush White House itself signaled a degree of reconsideration, however slight, with the president saying that his administration was "exploring all alternatives" for detaining prisoners in the war against terrorism.

But Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared to go along with that view briefly over the weekend, has since put to rest -- in his own mind, anyway -- any concern that Gitmo is a problem. "Now, does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion?" Cheney asked during a speech Monday at the National Press Club regarding allegations of abuse at the prison. "I frankly don't think so. And my own personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantánamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway."

Cheney said that detainees there had been treated "far better" by the United States than they could expect to be treated "by virtually any other government on the face of the earth."

Such moral relativism from the vice president is nothing new, but that doesn't make it any less appalling. (Is it even necessary to revisit Abu Ghraib here, or the growing pile of evidence that the Bush administration has sanctioned torture?) Cheney's got good company in Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and dedicated ally of the Pentagon, who, like the vice president, appeared to flirt with reason over the weekend, acknowledging on "Fox News Sunday" that shutting down Gitmo could allow the U.S. to "get it off the table and move on." But in a news conference yesterday on Capitol Hill, Hunter did an about-face and marched in lockstep behind Cheney. He focused on one prisoner held at the facility, Mohammed al-Kahtani, another man alleged to have been the planned 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 terror plot. Hunter pointed to al-Kahtani's apparently cushy lifestyle inside the prison: "The guy who wanted to drive that plane into the building at the World Trade Center is going to dine tomorrow on lemon fish with two types of vegetables, two types of fruit, and then he will be afforded his taxpayer-funded Koran, taxpayer-funded prayer beads and oil so he can pray, presumably to kill more Americans," Hunter said. He added that it was a "myth" that detainees were tortured at Guantáanamo.

The prison's fiercest critics, not surprisingly, have come from the other side of the aisle. In a floor speech in Congress yesterday, Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont called Guantánamo, along with last year's Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, "a national disgrace, an international embarrassment to us and our ideals, and a festering threat to our security."

Or perhaps it's that Leahy and a rising chorus of critics simply "don't agree" with Bush-Cheney policy. For now, the long-running campaign by the White House to whitewash the truth about U.S. tactics in the war on terrorism appears to resonate with the American public. According to the Washington Post, a recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed that Americans aren't particularly concerned about the various allegations of abuse: While half of those surveyed had heard about reports of prisoner abuse, only one in three considered the allegations more than an isolated problem.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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