The Magazine

An American Gulag?

From the June 13, 2005 issue: Human rights groups test the limits of moral equivalency.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By KENNETH ANDERSON
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So. Stalin's gulag, updated for our times. "Disappearances"--a term meaning, of course, the secret murder of detainees. And calls for the arrest by foreign governments of a long, long list of senior U.S. officials as "high level architects of torture"--oh, sorry, merely "apparent" architects of torture, but worthy of arrest by foreign governments just the same. Strong words for a press conference--and yet charges nowhere appearing in the actual report. Did reporters notice? Did any of them think to ask Amnesty International why it thought charges much more serious and inflammatory than anything in the AI annual report itself should be made merely as part of a press conference? Did any of them ask where the evidence for these extraordinary allegations was in the report just handed them? Did any of them ask about the legal basis for AI's view of the reach of the Geneva Conventions? Not as far as I could tell reviewing Google and Nexis.

But what to expect of reporters who seem to believe that they have heroically dug out vast evidence of U.S. government wrongdoing against detainees, when virtually all of it has been the government's own laborious record-keeping handed over to them on a silver platter? Never mind--score a PR hit for Amnesty International in the credulous, wanna-believe, suspension-of-disbelief world that is the mainstream media. The questions that reporters might have asked AI about its extraordinary accusations were instead directed at the Bush administration.

When I called and asked AI's press office why none of this was in the report itself, I was told that, after all, the report covered 149 countries and there simply wasn't room.

It has been hard to take Amnesty seriously for a long time, though the press, naturally, will be the last to grasp this fact. Amnesty has made serious factual mistakes--recall the scandal over the reporting of serious human rights violations in Guatemala that turned out to have been made from whole cloth by one of its researchers a few years ago. AI is a latecomer to the arcane world of the international law of war, and within the community of lawyers on these issues, its reputation is not very good--an amateur that depends largely on the ignorance of the press, its brand-name, and logo. In the United States, its leadership represents the far-left political fringe. And in Europe, it simply blows with the winds of fashionable left-wing politics. It has principles, to be sure, all no doubt deeply held--but they shift (and are deeply held, of course, even when shifting) with every breeze of leftish political fashion in Western Europe. One might say that Amnesty International is a serially principled organization.

Still, with this year's press conferences, AI has slithered over a very big cliff in credibility in the United States, if not in Europe. Julian Ku, the Hofstra international law professor who blogs at Opinio Juris (, maintains that Amnesty is "veering dangerously close to Noam Chomsky/Ramsey Clark-land here." Indeed--and I would add Michael Moore-land and even Lyndon LaRouche-land. AI has not merely veered but plunged deep into those fever swamps--and is proud of it, as befits an organization whose agenda is set on the populist far left of European politics.