A Question of Torture

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

THE REPUBLICAN presidential candidates were asked at their debate in South Carolina on Tuesday about "a million-to-one scenario" involving the interrogation of suspected foreign terrorists. Only one in 10 got it right.

That one would be Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the only presidential candidate who has experienced torture. "Torture" is Mr. McCain's correct description of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that President Bush authorized the CIA to use on captured members of al-Qaeda -- methods that soon spread to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and then to Afghanistan and Iraq. Until Mr. McCain succeeded in passing a legislative restriction two years ago, the methods included "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, an ancient torture technique that every U.S. government before the Bush administration considered illegal and immoral.

The scenario posited by questioner Brit Hume supposed that, after suicide attacks in several U.S. cities, a group of attackers believed to know about further strikes was captured off the coast of Florida and taken to Guantanamo. "How aggressively would you interrogate . . . ?" Mr. Hume asked. Mr. McCain answered that in that extreme and most unlikely situation, "I, as the president of the United States, would take that responsibility" for determining interrogation methods. But, he added, "We could never gain as much from that torture as we lose in world opinion."

The senator's words carried the weight not only of his own experience but that of the Bush administration, which has all but destroyed U.S. standing in many parts of the world because of the human rights abuses at Guantanamo, at Iraq's Abu Ghraib and in the CIA's secret prisons. Yet Mr. McCain's rivals seem to have learned nothing from this history. Rudy Giuliani said he would tell interrogators to use "every method they could think of," including waterboarding. Nonsensically, he added, "I've seen what can happen when you make a mistake about this," though prisoner interrogations had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mitt Romney, noting that "some people" have said we ought to close Guantanamo, boasted that "we ought to double Guantanamo," presumably doubling the international damage. He added that he liked to have suspects in Guantanamo because "they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil." In fact, even President Bush has said he'd like to close Guantanamo; and his administration recently retreated from an attempt to curtail lawyers' access to the Guantanamo prisoners.

Does Mr. Romney think the president has gone soft on terrorism? More likely, he and most of the other GOP candidates are calculating that they can curry favor with voters by promising that torture will be a tool of their presidential administrations. Let's hope they are wrong. As Mr. McCain put it, "It's not about the terrorists, it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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