Right on Torture

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Friday, September 28, 2007

SEN. HILLARY Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is getting kicked around for her position on torture -- specifically, whether she contradicted both herself and her husband in answering a question on the subject at the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire on Wednesday night. Moderator Tim Russert posed the nightmare scenario for those who, like us, believe that torture is an immoral tactic that yields faulty intelligence and diminishes the United States in the eyes of the world. What would Ms. Clinton do as president, he asked, if the "number three" in al-Qaeda were captured, authorities knew there was a "big bomb going off in America in three days" and the operative knew where it was. "Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him?" Russert asked, quoting an unnamed guest on "Meet the Press."

"As a matter of policy, it cannot be American policy, period," Ms. Clinton replied. Such "hypotheticals," she added, "are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it's dangerous to go down this path."

That was the correct answer, and it was also the answer provided by Ms. Clinton's rivals. "America cannot sanction torture," said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. "It's a very straightforward principle, and one that we should abide by. Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations, and I will make that judgment at that time." Added Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., "It should be no part of our policy ever -- ever."

That stood in marked contrast to a Republican presidential debate in May, when, alone among the contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the only candidate who has been a victim of torture, stood up against the practice.

Ms. Clinton's remarks were taken as a direct contradiction of not only Mr. Russert's unnamed guest, who turned out to be -- surprise! -- Bill Clinton, but of Ms. Clinton herself. Last October, Ms. Clinton told the New York Daily News, "If we're going to be preparing for the kind of improbable but possible eventuality, then it has to be done within the rule of law. . . . In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the president, and the president must be held accountable."

True, Ms. Clinton didn't add that caveat in her remarks last night, which was probably wise. What a president confronted with that extremely unlikely and equally difficult circumstance would do is something that would have to be decided at the time -- by him or her. What's clear is that torture-when-convenient cannot be U.S. policy. It's to the credit of Ms. Clinton and her Democratic colleagues that they seem to understand what the Republicans, save Mr. McCain, do not.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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