A License to Abuse
PRESIDENT BUSH made crystal clear Friday that he has one overriding concern about the legislation on foreign detainees before Congress. His "one test," he said, was whether Congress would authorize what he repeatedly called "the program" -- that is, the CIA's network of secret prisons and its brutal treatment of the people in them. "Congress has got a decision to make," Mr. Bush declared during a news conference. "Do you want the program to go forward or not?"
That is indeed the most important question before Congress and the nation. So allow us to elaborate, again, exactly what Mr. Bush means by "the program." He's talking about the practice of sequestering terrorist suspects indefinitely and without charge in secret foreign locations and holding them incommunicado even from the International Red Cross. Until recently, such "disappearances" were the signature of Third World dictatorships. U.S. adoption of them has roiled relations with our closest European allies and impeded collaboration with foreign police and intelligence services.
Mr. Bush also wants the CIA to be able to treat its detainees to such practices as "cold cell," or induced hypothermia, in which detainees are held naked in near-freezing temperatures and repeatedly doused with water; "long standing," in which prisoners are handcuffed in an uncomfortable standing position and forced to remain there for up to 40 hours; and prolonged sleep deprivation.
Throughout the world and for decades, such practices have been called torture. That's what the United States called them when they were used by the Soviet KGB. As the president himself tacitly acknowledges, they violate Geneva and other international conventions as well as current U.S. law. News that the United States has used these techniques -- as well as waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that simulates drowning -- has gravely damaged U.S. standing in the world and the fight against terrorism. It increases the danger that captured U.S. servicemen will be exposed to similar treatment by nations that might otherwise feel obliged to respect the Geneva standards.
When Mr. Bush was asked Friday whether he wasn't in effect seeking sanction for torture, he responded with an evasion. He claimed that the Geneva Conventions' Common Article 3 is "very vague" and that his proposal would provide "clarity" for CIA professionals. In fact, the opposite is true.
Common Article 3, which prohibits cruel treatment and humiliation, is an inflexible standard. The U.S. military, which lived with it comfortably for decades before the Bush administration, just reembraced it after a prolonged battle with the White House. The Army issued a thick manual this month that tells interrogators exactly what they can and cannot do in complying with the standard. The nation's most respected military leaders have said that they need and want nothing more to accomplish the mission of detaining and interrogating enemy prisoners -- and that harsher methods would be counterproductive.
Mr. Bush wants to replace these clear rules with a flexible and subjective standard -- one that would legalize any method that does not "shock the conscience." What shocks the conscience? According to Mr. Bush's Justice Department, the torture techniques described above -- and at least in the past, waterboarding -- do not, "in certain circumstances." So Mr. Bush's real objection to Common Article 3 is not that it is vague. It is that it will not permit abusive practices that he isn't willing publicly to discuss or defend.
Rather than admit that he wants to legalize disappearances and torture, Mr. Bush ominously warns that "the program" won't continue unless Congress passes his bill. He says "time's running out," even though it's not. There are no detainees in the CIA prisons at the moment, according to the president, and the only clock running out is that measuring the midterm election campaign. There is no need for Congress to act in the next two weeks. But if it does, the clear answer to Mr. Bush's question, endorsed by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and a host of other responsible Republican and military leaders, is "no." For both moral and practical reasons, the country should reject this fundamental violation of its principles.