Thursday, December 08, 2005


Want credibility? Call off Cheney, back ban on torture

Friday, December 09, 2005

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is spending much of her official visit to Europe this week insisting that the American government does not condone and will not permit torture of prisoners, here or abroad. That such a defense is necessary is a national embarrassment, but it is necessary because the words and actions of President Bush and his administration raise doubts.

As Rice has pointed out, the government has a problem in that persons detained, arrested or captured as terror suspects are not, like uniformed soldiers from the army of an enemy state, entitled by law or treaty to the protections of the Geneva Convention. The enemy has no army and no state.

But the terrorists' plans and actions go well beyond the ranks of mere criminality, such as holding up a liquor store or even committing murder. Terrorists observe no moral or humane limits as they deliberately target groups of innocent people, including women and children, for destruction in the name of a religious or political cause — and they do so hoping to destroy a society, a way of life.

However, the inhumanity of terrorists does not entitle the American government to slip loose of its own civilized restraints from barbaric behavior. The government must be tough and relentless in fighting such people, but its claim to moral superiority is weakened when it resorts to viciousness such as torture.

The Bush administration has sent ambiguous signals about where it stands on torture. In 2002, a Justice Department memo on permissible interrogation methods indicated that physical pain would have to be unusually extreme before it could be considered illegal. The memo was later disavowed. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal also raised questions internationally about how well the United States treats prisoners. The Washington Post recently reported that the United States keeps some al Qaeda prisoners in secret prisons in foreign countries, and other prisoners have been turned over to other nations far less concerned about human rights than this one.

And even as the administration today maintains that the government does not torture, Vice President Dick Cheney has tried to stop Congress from banning all government employees, not just the military, from using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on prisoners, whether they are held here or overseas. Cheney is apparently losing this fight, though he reportedly is still trying to get an exception for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Part of the problem here might be the reluctance of the Bush administration to even appear to be bowing to critics, foreign or domestic. Put another way, perhaps Rice's diplomatic message is, "We didn't do it — and we won't do it again."

Or maybe there is a divide within the administration. If so, it could be settled quickly if Bush would not only say the government doesn't torture, as he has already, but if he would also call off Cheney and publicly agree to the legal ban on torture — a ban proposed by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.

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