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Stepping Back From Torture

By David Ignatius
Friday, December 16, 2005

It's not about who our enemies are, it's about who we are. That has been Sen. John McCain's refrain as he campaigned for a ban on cruel interrogation techniques, and his success in convincing the Senate, the House and now President Bush may mark a small turning point for the country. The United States is beginning to find its way out of the moral thicket into which it stumbled after Sept. 11, 2001.

The strongest argument for the compromise McCain and Bush reached yesterday is, to my mind, a national security one. Bush realized that harsh negative perceptions of America abroad were harming the country. The torture issue had become the most noxious symbol of what the world saw as America's arrogant lawlessness. But to Bush, it was also a symbol of his vow to do whatever it took to make the United States safe. So the two most stubborn men in America, McCain and Bush, struggled to find language they could both live with.

I credit Bush for realizing that he had to give ground. He needed to do something on the torture issue to protect the country's standing in the world -- even something that he rightly believed carried risks for the United States. The man who famously never wants to change course or admit mistakes finally did both. In formally renouncing the anything-goes mentality that followed Sept. 11, he has begun restoring America's badly tarnished image.

And what of McCain, the man who felt the outrage of torture on his lacerated skin and broken bones in a Vietnamese prison? I think he sealed his place in American history this week, whatever happens to him down the road. He simply would not give up on this issue. He took it to the president personally in a phone call in early November, all but pleading with the White House to change course. Bush responded by instructing his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to begin confidential negotiations, something that wasn't easy for the garrulous McCain.

Some advocates of the torture ban have argued that we're not really giving anything up, because torture never works. If that were true, this wouldn't be a genuine moral choice. But in fact, America will lose some leverage in interrogations. There's no escaping the reality that people may die in future terrorist attacks because we have opted for a moral choice.

To understand what difference a ban on torture will make, I spoke this week with British sources about the interrogation techniques used against the Irish Republican Army in the early 1970s. The British were facing a hideous IRA bombing campaign, and to stop the bombers, the British army and police in Northern Ireland tried to squeeze information from their IRA prisoners.

The British recognized what every cop knows -- that interrogation is much easier if the prisoner is disoriented. So the British put hoods on their IRA prisoners, just as U.S. interrogators have done in Iraq. The British approved other, harsher methods: depriving IRA prisoners of sleep, making them lean against a wall for long periods, using "white noise" that would confuse them.

The clincher for British interrogators was mock execution. The preferred method in the mid-1970s was to take hooded IRA prisoners up in helicopters over the lakes near Belfast and threaten to throw them out if they didn't talk. Sometimes, they actually were thrown out. The prisoners didn't know that the helicopter was only a few yards above the water. I'm told that technique nearly always worked. (So, too, with the "waterboarding" that U.S. interrogators used to break al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed.) The British eventually had to give up their extreme techniques because of public outcry, and I'm told they got less information. But they eventually prevailed against the IRA.

What of the extreme case that should haunt us all, when an al Qaeda prisoner may know the location of a ticking nuclear bomb? Here, too, the right answer is the rule of law. Under the new rules, an aggressive interrogator who discovers information that prevents a nuclear attack may still be charged with a crime. But I doubt any judge or jury would ever convict him. That's the essence of a lawful society -- that hard decisions are left to courts, not to individuals. McCain got it exactly right when Newsweek asked him about this ultimate test. "You do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it."

It's a long walk back from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but President Bush took a first step yesterday, prodded by the man who has been his greatest political rival. Their partnership, in itself, is encouraging.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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