Torture, American-Style

(Andres Leighton - AP)

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By David Luban
Sunday, November 27, 2005

There are two torture debates going on in America today: One is about fantasy, and the other is about reality.

For viewers of TV shows such as "Commander in Chief" and "24," the question is about ticking bombs. To find the ticking bomb, should a conscientious public servant toss the rulebook out the window and torture the terrorist who knows where the lethal device is? Many people think the answer is yes: Supreme emergencies demand exceptions to even the best rules. Others answer no: A law is a law, and a moral absolute is a moral absolute. Period. Still others try to split the difference: We won't change the rule, but we will cross our fingers and hope that Jack Bauer, the daring counterterrorism agent on "24," will break it. Then we will figure out whether to punish Bauer, give him a medal, or both. Finally, some insist that since torture doesn't work -- that it doesn't actually unearth vital information -- the whole hypothetical rests on a false premise. Respectable arguments can be made on all sides of this debate.

Real intelligence gathering is not a made-for-TV melodrama. It consists of acquiring countless bits of information and piecing together a mosaic. So the most urgent question has nothing to do with torture and ticking bombs. It has to do with brutal tactics that fall short -- but not far short -- of torture employed on a fishing expedition for morsels of information that might prove useful but usually don't, according to people who have worked in military intelligence. After Time magazine revealed the harsh methods used at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to interrogate Mohamed Qatani, the so-called "20th hijacker," the Pentagon replied with a memo describing the "valuable intelligence information" he had revealed. Most of it had to do with Qatani's own past and his role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Other parts concerned al Qaeda's modus operandi. But, conspicuously, the Pentagon has never claimed that anything Qatani revealed helped it prevent terrorist attacks, imminent or otherwise.

The real torture debate, therefore, isn't about whether to throw out the rulebook in the exceptional emergencies. Rather, it's about what the rulebook says about the ordinary interrogation -- about whether you can shoot up Qatani with saline solution to make him urinate on himself, or threaten him with dogs in order to find out whether he ever met Osama bin Laden. And the trouble is that this second debate is so wrapped up in legalisms, jargon and half-truths that it is truly hard to unravel.

The most recent issue is Arizona Sen. John McCain's amendment to a defense appropriations bill, designed to plug loopholes in current anti-torture law. It has passed the Senate, and the House is scheduled to vote on it sometime next month. President Bush has responded that we do not torture, we treat prisoners humanely, and we follow our legal obligations. But what, exactly, are the politicians arguing about?

The starting point is the U.N. Convention Against Torture, a treaty that the United States ratified in 1994. Under the convention, we agreed to criminalize overseas torture -- official torture was already a crime within the United States -- and to "undertake to prevent . . . other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (CID, for short) that "do not amount to torture." Many of the controversial U.S. methods are CID, sometimes called "torture lite." CID includes techniques used in Guantanamo: 18- to 20-hour-a-day questioning for 48 out of 54 days, blasting prisoners with strobe lights and ear-splitting rock music, menacing them with snarling dogs, threatening to hurt their mothers, and humiliations such as leading them around on leashes Pfc. Lynndie England-style, stripping them naked in front of women, or holding them down while a female interrogator straddles them and whispers that we've killed their comrades.

All of these methods were used on Qatani, and documented in the Army's Schmidt report (PDF), which was commissioned in response to FBI allegations of abuses at Guantanamo. (Most of the report, co-authored by Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt, remains classified, so we do not know whether the classified portions contain worse.)

Methods like these were banned in U.S. criminal investigations years ago, because, in the Supreme Court's language, they "shock the conscience." Assaults on human dignity are not who we are or what we stand for. Given the U.S. commitment under the torture convention to "undertake to prevent" CID, why are we using it abroad in cases that have nothing to do with ticking time bombs? Why does the president still insist that we're following our legal obligations, and that we treat detainees humanely?

It depends what you mean by "legal obligations" and "humanely." A quick glossary of the unique Bush administration definitions might help.

Cruel, inhuman or degrading. In the Bush lexicon, these words have no meaning outside U.S. territory because we have no obligation to prevent such methods from being used in interrogations performed outside the United States and its possessions. That was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's startling argument at his confirmation hearing, and it goes like this: Before the Senate ratified the torture convention, it added the reservation that CID means the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment forbidden by our Constitution. But the Supreme Court has held, in other unrelated contexts, that the Constitution does not apply outside U.S. territory. Therefore, the administration maintains, outside U.S. territory (including the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, on the island of Cuba) anything goes except outright torture.

This was not at all what the Senate meant, according to Abraham Sofaer, the State Department's legal adviser when the Reagan administration signed the Convention Against Torture in 1988. In a letter this past January to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, Sofaer explained that the purpose of the Senate's reservation was to ensure that the same standards for CID would apply outside the United States as apply inside -- just the opposite of Attorney General Gonzales's conclusion. The point was to define CID, not to create a gaping geographical loophole.

This is the loophole that McCain, a Republican, is trying to close. His amendment requires that the ban on CID not be "construed to impose any geographical limitation."


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