Torture, By Any Other Name

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, October 5, 2006; 12:54 PM

President Bush repeatedly says he's against torture. The detainee legislation recently approved by Congress ostensibly bans torture.

But that's meaningless if the Bush administration won't say how it defines the word.

And the White House still refuses to answer even the simplest, most germane question: Is waterboarding torture?

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Key senators say Congress has outlawed one of the most notorious detainee interrogation techniques -- 'waterboarding,' in which a prisoner feels near drowning. But the White House will not go that far, saying it would be wrong to tell terrorists which practices they might face.

"Inside the CIA, waterboarding is cited as the technique that got Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the prime plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to begin to talk and provide information -- though 'not all of it reliable,' a former senior intelligence official said."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told his colleagues last Thursday during the debate on military commissions legislation: "We punished people with 15 years of hard labor when waterboarding was used against Americans in World War II."

Pincus explains that CIA interrogators sought authority to use more coercive methods for suspected high-level al-Qaeda operatives. "These were cleared not only at the White House but also by the Justice Department and briefed to senior congressional officials, according to a statement released last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Waterboarding was one of the approved techniques.

"When questions began to be raised last year about the handling of high-level detainees and Congress passed legislation barring torture, the handful of CIA interrogators and senior officials who authorized their actions became concerned that they might lose government support.

"Passage last month of military commissions legislation provided retroactive legal protection to those who carried out waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques."

Parsing Bush

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As he heads out on the campaign trail, haunted by an unpopular war, President Bush has begun reassuring audiences that this traumatic period in Iraq will be seen as 'just a comma' in the history books. By that, aides say, he means to reinforce his message of resolve in the long struggle for Iraqi democracy.

"But opponents of the war have seized on the formulation, seeing it as evidence that Bush is indifferent to suffering. To them, it sounds as if the president is dismissing more than 2,700 U.S. troop deaths as 'just a comma.' And a lively Internet debate has broken out about the origins of the phrase, with some speculating that Bush means it as a coded message to religious supporters, evoking the aphorism 'Never put a period where God has put a comma.'"

Baker also calls some deserved attention to Bush's predilection for straw-man argument. (See my Sept. 27 column, Bush's Imaginary Foes .)

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