A 'Clear Message'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 17, 2006; 12:46 PM

President Bush this morning proudly signed into law a bill that critics consider one of the most un-American in the nation's long history.

The new law vaguely bans torture -- but makes the administration the arbiter of what is torture and what isn't. It allows the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant. It suspends the Great Writ of habeas corpus for detainees. It allows coerced testimony at trial. It immunizes retroactively interrogators who may have engaged in torture.

Here's what Bush had to say at his signing ceremony in the East Room: "The bill I sign today helps secure this country, and it sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from the threats to our freedom."

But that may not be the "clear message" the new law sends most people.

Here's the clear message the law sends to the world: America makes its own rules. The law would apparently subject terror suspects to some of the same sorts of brutal interrogation tactics that have historically been prosecuted as war crimes when committed against Americans.

Here's the clear message to the voters: This Congress is willing to rubberstamp pretty much any White House initiative it sees as being in its short-term political interests. (And I don't just mean the Republicans; 12 Senate Democrats and 32 House Democrats voted for the bill as well.)

Here's the clear message to the Supreme Court: Review me.

I could go on and on. (And maybe I will, tomorrow. E-mail your "clear messages" to froomkin@washingtonpost.com )

More Unanswered Questions

Bush seems to think history will be kind to him.

"Over the past few months the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex," he said. "Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?"

But history's questions may in fact be quite different: How far did we allow fear to drive us from our core values? How did a terror attack lead our country to abandon its commitment to fairness and the rule of law? How mercilessly were we willing to treat those we suspected to be our enemies? How much raw, unchecked power were we willing to hand over to the executive?

Bush's repeated but unsubstantiated claims about the great intelligence successes reaped through harsh interrogations will hopefully oblige the press to review what we know and what we don't know about his assertions.

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