Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fact-Checking Pomona Professor Heather Williams

Contrary to what Assistant Professor Heather Williams has written, Pomona’s ASPC Communication Commissioner Kelly Schwartz ’10 and ASPC President Elspeth Hilton ’08 have a duty to bring former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

First and foremost, I find it disturbing that a Pomona Faculty member intrudes on what is otherwise a student-centered event. Nevertheless, I will address her points in the order in which she presents them.

Gonzales’ “Criminal Actions” and the So-Called “Prisoners of War”:

On The Student Life website, Williams’ title “Alberto Gonzales is a Criminal, Not A Speaker” smacks of bias. (To be fair, in the hard copy, the headline is "Alberto Gonzales is a Disgrace, Not a Speaker." I disagree that Gonzales is either criminal or disgraceful.)

Gonzales’ firing of political appointees – which, he has every right to do, just as the Justice Department has every right to address certain types of crimes – is hardly “criminal.” Professor Williams misleads, stating that Gonzales “criminal actions” undermine the public trust. How she can say that when there has been no indictment, no trial, and certainly no conviction of Gonzales testifies to a lack of balance we should expect of a Pomona faculty member. In the American democracy and under the Geneva Conventions she so extols, we try people before we call their actions criminal.

While we’re on the topic of the Geneva Convention, Williams ignores why nations endorse treaties in the first place. The principle reason that nations approve treaties is because their enemies and their allies have done the same. When terrorists choose to deliberate fight under the flag of no nation, they waive the considerations the Geneva Convention affords and harm international law. Why would nations agree to treaties when terrorists can get their protections even as they work for the destruction of the very institutions that produce them?

“Blanket Domestic Spying Powers”

Professor Williams criticizes the Democratic-Congress approved NSA program that has saved lives. She ignores this fact. She calls the NSA program’s “blanket domestic spying powers” without ever talking about how the NSA program only monitors the international calls between pre-designated terrorist-states and American phones. This policy smacks of common sense. It frankly doesn’t bother me that the U.S. government is listening in on the calls of people in Yemen or Saudi Arabia and the U.S, particularly when it has saved lives. In other wars, notably World War II, the President authorized wiretapping on all American phones without so much as a peep from Congress.

In any event, this current program has saved lives and continues to save them. Perhaps that’s why the Democratic Congress overwhelmingly approved the NSA program despite its initial kvetching.

“Waterboarding and Torture Techniques”

Professor Williams’s personal distain for torture is well-founded, but she goes too far when she says that the ticking time situations do occur. Unfortunately, the ticking time bomb terrorist does exist.

To provide just one example, I’ll give you the example of a little known case in Germany in 2004. According to Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas Law School, German authorities captured a man suspected of kidnapping a young boy. After questioning the man for two days, a senior officer, fearing for the boy’s safety, authorized non-lethal pain to get the information. When the officer told the suspect what was going to be done to him, the suspect broke down and told the officers where they could find the boy’s body. Both the officer and the interrogator were charged with running afoul of Germany’s constitutional prohibition against torture, but released due to “massive mitigating circumstances.”

If Germany, a country with an explicit constitutional prohibition to torture, allows that form of torture, why shouldn’t the U.S., a country without an explicit constitutional prohibition of torture, be barred from maximizing its citizenry’s safety? Some scholars like Alan Dershowitz have recognized that democratic countries will sometimes use torture and so we should plan to develop appropriate safeguards as to what is acceptable.[1] Viewed this way, the case Professor Williams mentions of the Office of Legal Council (OLC) and the 2002 “torture memo,” Gonzales was simply authorizing the OLC to study what would be the limits of U.S. law under circumstances. Contrary to what Professor Williams writes, the OLC did use relevant judicial opinions – the very place where the law has most frequently talked about torture. They rightly concluded that waterboarding does not run afoul of U.S. law because it does not risk eminent death.

Whether or not waterboarding runs afoul of U.S. laws remains controversial, unlike the other forms of torture she mentions. She rightly notes that torture can get away from those employing it. The barbarity Professor Williams mentions comes to mind. But this is the very reason why we need to have policy discussion as to what is and is not appropriate. But Professor Williams’s blanket condemnation against torture is far from the nuanced positions we’d expect from a professor. Fortunately, she, an assistant professor at Pomona, has the luxury of not making these tough calls of when to use torture. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had to make those very tough calls. He knows that those calls are unpopular and perhaps that’s why he was forced to mislead the investigation into waterboarding. Then again, the stress of the job may produce a spotty memory. I’m sure those questions can come out in a question and answer period – the very place where Professor Williams can make her reservations known.

Indeed, I would argue that forum, and not The Student Life, is the appropriate place to challenge admittedly controversial Gonzales views. This controversy is the very reason we need Gonzales to come and provide his views on that and many other subjects. Pomona needs to stand for intellectual inquiry, even if her professors do not.

[1] Full disclosure: I worked for Alan M. Dershowitz these past two summers and during my senior year of high school. My views do not necessarily reflect his.


Anonymous said...

I really think they dragged a good man threw the mud as Bush said when the Attorney General (AG) Alberto Gonzales (AG) got picked apart by the democratic congress. waterboardings no good, but I hesitate to say that some forms of torture are never justified, especially forms milder than waterboarding, which is pretty scary. However, some circumstances are so mitigating I think we need to explore how much is ok and err on the side of caution of course, but if it could prevent another 9/11 I do not think it would be fair to write off things like mild sensory deprivation or loud music or boredom, which some want to label torture, as such.

Heather said...

You check your facts! (And your spelling.) Under the NSA warrantless surveillance controversy, the NSA is authorized by executive order to monitor, without warrants, phone calls and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the U.S., even if the other end of the communication lies within the U.S. That therefore qualifies as warrantless domestic spying, and requires FISC authorization under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The exact scope of the program is NOT known, and has NOT been disclosed, and given the perjuring/dissembling/amnesiac practices of the AG Gonzales, I have no confidence whatsoever that suspect that the same people who are willing to carry out partisan purges of U.S. attorneys will see no problem in using these intercepts for any purpose they want. I believe you are naive to thnk otherwise. I say if you want Gonzales to come speak, you fork over the 30 grand and pay for his dinner, too.

Anonymous said...

the controversy over the US attorney firings shouldnt have been controversial at all. THEY ARE POLITICAL APPOINTEES AND SERVE AT THE PLEASURE OF THE ADMINISTRATION. while getting rid of them in the middle of an administration is fairly rare, they are similar to the president's cabinet, in that they can be hired or fired at any time. No one should have quested Gonzales's motives for this (he doesnt need a reason since they serve at his pleasure) nor should it have been an issue that the media picked up on as a 'controversial' move.