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Torture Is All in the Subtext

Opinion Watch

"Time is running out," Bush said on Friday. "Congress is set to adjourn in just a few weeks." So what's the hurry?

One theory is that the next Congress might not be so amenable to giving Bush legal cover.

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The Supreme Court has ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to the prisoners seized by the administration, which means that abusing those prisoners -- as so many have said for so long -- is unquestionably illegal. And there is also the possibility that the Democrats, if they ever wake up, may take control of at least one house of Congress, giving them the kind of subpoena power and oversight that makes the administration tremble. . . .

"The reason President Bush has been trying so frantically to get Congressional passage of his plan to interrogate and try terror suspects is that he needs its contorted interpretations of the law to keep important cases from falling apart, and to cover the collective keisters of higher-ups who may have authorized or condoned war crimes."

Paul Krugman , writing in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required), asks another fine question: "[W]hy is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?"

His answer: "To show that it can."

The Coverage

Among straight news reporters, R. Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post came closest to explaining what was really going on Friday -- although his article was on page three of Saturday's paper, rather than page one.

"The nature and legitimacy of [the CIA's] coercive techniques is the largely unpublicized subtext of the legislative dispute that has erupted between the administration and its opponents on Capitol Hill, including lawmakers from both parties who have said privately that they find some of the CIA's past interrogation methods abhorrent," Smith wrote.

Smith drew attention to several of the outright contradictions in the administration's position, calling them "ironies."

"The administration says its intent is to define the explicit meaning of Common Article 3 so that CIA officers know exactly what they can do. But the senior official who addressed the legal issue yesterday said the standard the administration prefers is 'context-sensitive,' a phrase that suggests an endlessly shifting application of the rules.

"The reason is that the administration's language would in effect ban only those interrogation techniques that 'shock the conscience.' That phrase, drawn from a judicial interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, is a 'flexible' standard, the official said. Others have said that standard would allow interrogators to weigh how urgently they felt they needed to extract information against the harshness of their techniques, instead of following rigid guidelines.

"The official did not try to explain how embracing such an inherently flexible standard would actually create clarity, the watchword of the administration's public campaign for its version of the bill," Smith wrote with great understatement.

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