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Torture, American-Style

(Andres Leighton - AP)

Humane. This month, the Pentagon issued a new directive on interrogation, requiring "humane" treatment of subjects. It came up with that terminology to replace more specific language in an early draft of its directive that had been modeled on the Geneva Conventions' ban on cruel or humiliating treatment. The reason for the change: Vice President Cheney's office vehemently objected to the initial Geneva-like phrasing.

But what does "humane" mean? Not much, it seems. Amazingly, the Army's Schmidt report declared that none of the tactics used in Guantanamo were "inhumane." Along similarly minimalist lines, Gonzales defined "humane treatment" as requiring nothing more than providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care. In the Bush lexicon, therefore, sexual humiliation, acute sleep deprivation and threats to have a detainee's mother kidnapped and imprisoned are humane.

Oddly enough, the Schmidt report also concluded that most of the Guantanamo tactics were already authorized by U.S. Army doctrine -- a conclusion that the Army never previously accepted. The basic Army doctrine on interrogations is the Golden Rule: Before using a tactic, interrogators should ask themselves whether they think it would be permitted if used by an enemy against American prisoners of war. Given our protests at the public display of downed American fliers in Iraq during the first Gulf War, it is obvious that the answer would be "no" to the sexual humiliations at Guantanamo.

The Army's manual does discuss so-called "futility" tactics -- making the prisoner believe that further resistance is futile by presenting "factual information . . . in a persuasive, logical manner." Schmidt, however, twisted this doctrine to justify blasting detainees with high-volume "futility music" (the report's phrase) by Metallica and Britney Spears, dressing a detainee in a bra, and making him do dog tricks. McCain's amendment would restrict interrogations to those authorized by the Army's manual -- but the way the Schmidt report reads the manual, this limitation amounts to very little. (In any case, the Army is rewriting the manual.)

Legal obligations. Bush declared that al Qaeda members have no Geneva Conventions rights -- not even the minimum rights against cruel and humiliating treatment that the Geneva accords guarantee to detainees who don't qualify as POWs. Although in February 2002 the president ordered the military to treat detainees according to the Geneva standards, his order conspicuously omitted any mention of non-military agencies such as the CIA. It also left a large loophole for "military necessity."

In the law of war, military necessity encompasses anything that contributes to victory, so the president's directive really forbids nothing but pointless sadism. Cheney and his new chief of staff, David Addington, have fought the McCain amendment precisely because it would prohibit CID treatment. In short, we comply with our legal obligations because, in the Bush lexicon, we hardly have any.

We don't torture. "We don't torture" means that we don't use worse tactics than CID -- except when we do. Waterboarding (in which a prisoner is made to believe he is drowning) and withholding pain medication for bullet wounds cross the line into torture -- and both have allegedly been used. So does "Palestinian hanging," where a prisoner's arms are twisted behind his back and his wrists are chained five feet above the floor.

A Nov. 18 ABC News report quoted former and current intelligence officers and supervisors as saying that the CIA has a list of acceptable interrogation methods, including soaking naked prisoners with water in 50-degree rooms and making them stand for 40 hours handcuffed and shackled to an eyebolt in the floor. ABC reported that these methods had been used on at least a dozen captured al Qaeda members. All these techniques undoubtedly inflict the "severe suffering" that our law defines as torture.

Consider the cases of Abed Hamed Mowhoush and Manadel Jamadi. Mowhoush, an Iraqi general in Saddam Hussein's army, was smothered to death in a sleeping bag by U.S. interrogators in western Iraq. Jamadi, a suspected bombmaker, whose ice-packed body was photographed at Abu Ghraib, was seized and roughed up by Navy SEALS in Iraq, then turned over to the CIA for questioning. At some point during this process, according to an account in the New Yorker magazine, someone broke his ribs; then he was hooded and underwent "Palestinian hanging" until he died. The CIA operative implicated has still not been charged, two years after Jamadi's death. And the SEAL leader was acquitted, exulting afterward that "what makes this country great is that there is a system in place and it works."

He got that right. Shamefully, it is a system that permits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, smudges long-standing lines about what is and is not permitted in routine interrogations -- and then expresses hypocritical horror when soldiers and interrogators cross the blurry line into torture and murder.

McCain has said that ultimately the debate is over who we are. We will never figure that out until we stop talking about ticking bombs, and stop playing games with words.

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David Luban is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a visiting professor this year at Stanford University Law School. He writes frequently about legal ethics and contributed a chapter to the forthcoming book "The Torture Debate" (Cambridge University Press).

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