Springsteen's Tortured Logic

Watching Bruce Springsteen on "60 Minutes" last Sunday, I was catapulted back to 1984. That was the year his song “Born in the U.S.A.” (from the album of the same name) became not just a monster hit, but an anthem of sorts for America. An America proud of its patriotic resurgence under President Reagan. An America no longer defined by Carteresque policies of weakness and accommodation but by strength, principle, and trust…with verification.

Springsteen, however, believed his song had been hijacked by Americans newly proud of their country. He made a point of saying publicly that the song was written NOT as a patriotic tune but rather to question America’s use of power and to draw attention to the injustices and inequities he saw.

He’s got a new album now, and unlike Born in the U.S.A., it leaves no ambiguity about his message. On "60 Minutes," Springsteen said:

“I think we’ve seen things happen over the past six years that I don’t think anybody ever thought they’d see in the United States. When people think of the United States’ identity, they don’t think of torture. They don’t think of illegal wiretapping. They don’t think of voter suppression. They don’t think of no habeas corpus, no right to lawyers….There’s been a whole series of things that…I never thought I’d see in America.”

Did he ever think he’d see Islamic terror on the scale of September 11? In America? That question, of course, was not asked of Springsteen.

As you’d expect from "60 Minutes", his allegations remained unchallenged. So let’s set the record straight point by point.

1. “Torture.” American policy prohibits the use of torture. After September 11, it became clear that we were dealing with a different kind of enemy: religiously-driven enemy combatants who wore no country’s uniform and who deliberately targeted unsuspecting civilians. It also became clear that captured terrorists were outside the parameters of the guidelines for traditional POWs, and that the range and intensity of what we could do to extract information from them was similarly vague.

Last year, Senator John McCain tried to clarify what could be done by authoring legislation that limited interrogation methods to what was already authorized in the Army Field Manual. It also made murky the existing law on torture by failing to define its own broad terms, such as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Instead of clarifying what was allowed, the McCain amendment fogged it up.

Last week, some (now not so) secret memos on interrogation techniques were leaked — of course — to the New York Times. There was discussion of certain methods, including exposure to cold temperatures and simulated drowning. Again, because what is permissible remains unclear, the president reiterated that the U.S. does not torture, although aggressive techniques have generated actionable intelligence from which American lives have been saved.

Further, former president Bill Clinton and the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton, have said they support a presidential exemption for emergency interrogation authorizations.

So, Springsteen, although some aggressive methods may be used, the U.S. does not engage in torture. And not a single terrorist suspect has argued successfully and offered proof that he has been tortured. (And with all of the lawyers and the International Committee of the Red Cross available to them, if they were being tortured, you’d hear about it.)

2. “Illegal wiretapping.” The president kept up a precedent set by other presidents in wiretapping possible foreign enemies communicating into the U.S. When questions arose (after yet more leaked stories), he took it to Congress — which had been overseeing it all along — and got its parameters clarified. There have been no cases — and no evidence — to suggest an abuse of the wiretapping policy, which even many of the leading Democratic presidential candidates say they would continue.

3. “Voter suppression.” This was Springsteen’s not-so-subtle suggestion that Bush’s election and re-election were illegitimate. In 2000 and 2004 (like every presidential election before them), there were anecdotal reports of some spotty voting irregularities, but there has been no evidence of widespread, orchestrated fraud or suppression. Although if Springsteen wants to talk about real voter fraud, may I suggest a discussion of the 1960 election in Chicago, Texas, and West Virginia.

4. “No habeas corpus — no right to lawyers.” Here Springsteen was referring to the terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. First, I was there last year. I saw some of the hundreds of lawyers representing them pro bono. Second, those accused terrorists are in the military tribunal process, complete with a final option to appeal to a U.S. civilian court, unprecedented for the U.S. to grant to any enemy in wartime.

These enemy combatants, having exhausted all tribunal and appeals reviews, can take their cases to a federal appeals court, and ultimately to the Supreme Court. They have the very essence of habeas corpus, and are taking full advantage of the legal paths made available to them. These are all “rights” we’ve chosen to give them, as there is a strong constitutional argument that because they are not American citizens but enemy combatants, they are not entitled to any rights.

Nobody is telling Springsteen to zip it or not to criticize his government or dissent if he disagrees with policy. He is an iconic rock star with a big platform and a big microphone. With that should come the responsibility to get the facts straight before he blasts his government during wartime. But we should know better than to confuse rock stars with responsible people.