Moral Barrier
The president stands in the way of a ban on torture.

Friday, February 15, 2008

LAWMAKERS THIS week took an important step toward restoring the moral authority of the United States by approving legislation that would ban the use of torture by U.S. personnel, including CIA agents, in questioning detainees. One would think the leader of a country that cherishes human rights would support this worthy measure, but President Bush, to the great detriment of the United States and his legacy, is likely to veto it.

In a 51 to 45 vote, the Senate adopted a measure to require all U.S. interrogators to abide by the rules in the Army Field Manual, which specifically prohibit waterboarding, or simulated drowning, as well as severe sleep and sensory deprivation. The House passed the measure in December. Military leaders have repeatedly testified that the field manual's ban on torture has not diminished their ability to collect reliable information. High-level detainees, including former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, have been interrogated to great effect under the auspices of the manual. The FBI also eschews extreme interrogation tactics, and agency officials have said that they have not been hampered in gathering information.

Yet Mr. Bush continues to resist calls for the suspension of policies that erode the values of this country, put U.S. personnel at greater risk of being abused and are largely counterproductive because detainees desperate to avert pain provide unreliable information. Earlier efforts to outlaw torture through the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act have fallen victim to the Bush administration's legal duplicities. The administration, which recently admitted the use of waterboarding on three terrorism suspects before enactment of those laws, still refuses to declare definitively that waterboarding is illegal even under the new legal scheme. Yesterday, Stephen G. Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, suggested that the technique may not be legal under the new laws but stopped short of declaring it so. He would say only that the department has had no occasion to determine its legality.

In a campaign to justify a veto, Mr. Bush might try to seize upon the vote by Republican presidential front-runner Sen. John McCain against the measure. Mr. McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been a leading light in decrying such coercive interrogations. (Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have said they favor the measure.) Mr. McCain argued that "what we need is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual, but rather to have a good-faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible in the CIA program."

Perhaps a President McCain could be trusted to provide such a "good-faith interpretation" of existing law. President Bush cannot. And there is too much at stake, now and in the future, to leave the integrity of the country's laws and the preservation of its values to chance.

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