New Face, Old Evasion

Saturday, May 20, 2006

AT THE SENATE intelligence committee hearing Thursday on Gen. Michael V. Hayden's nomination to head the CIA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the nominee a simple question: Is "waterboarding" an acceptable interrogation technique? Gen. Hayden responded: "Let me defer that to closed session, and I would be happy to discuss it in some detail." That was the wrong answer. The right one would have been simple: No. Last year Congress banned cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment of detainees; one of its explicit aims was to stop the CIA's use of waterboarding, which induces an excruciating sensation of drowning and is considered by most human rights organizations to constitute torture. So why couldn't Gen. Hayden say clearly that the technique is now off-limits?

Few issues facing the next CIA director are more important than what to do about the agency's network of secret prisons, in which it is holding -- and has been abusively interrogating -- high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives. Gen. Hayden acknowledged in open session that the new law binds the CIA and made clear as well that it requires all federal agencies, including the one he is slated to lead, "to handle detainees wherever they may be located in a way that is not cruel, inhumane or degrading."

Yet in signing the law, President Bush made clear he reserved the right to override it as part of his inherent powers as commander in chief. What's more, his administration has quietly taken the view that waterboarding could actually be consistent with a ban on cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. Now Gen. Hayden refuses in public to forswear the use of such barbaric treatment. The damage done by such silence to America's global standing and long-term interests is incalculable.

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