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The White House's Perverse Argument

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 7, 2008; 1:12 PM

When you get right down to it, the White House's new argument in favor of waterboarding is that the ends justify the means.

The White House line: Yes, we did it, but only to three chief terrorists, and only when we thought the nation was in imminent danger. We got life-saving information in return. And so we'd do it again in similar circumstances. (See yesterday's column for more.)

Putting aside for a moment the question of whether the ends did in fact justify the means -- and there is considerable evidence that the waterboarding of those three men miserably failed that test as well -- the White House argument is deeply perverse and goes against core American values.

Waterboarding is undeniably cruel. It is undeniably an assault on human dignity. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution -- the one banning cruel and unusual punishment -- doesn't come with an asterisk indicating: Except when you think it's really, really important.

It's true that on TV, the ticking time bomb scenarios are crystal clear, being tough means using torture, and torture always works. But none of those things are remotely true in the real world. Which is why we have rules that we're supposed to follow, even in emergencies.

And even on the twisted terms the White House is advocating, the evidence suggests that the ends in this case did not justify the means. The White House asks us to believe that in this case it was worth it. But despite all the generalized assertions that countless lives have been saved by the CIA's interrogation program, Bush and his aides -- as I wrote in my Dec. 11 column-- have yet to offer a concrete case where intelligence produced by torture saved a single life. To the contrary, as I wrote in October, Bush has repeatedly cited examples of thwarted attacks that turned out to be wildly exaggerated.

Finally, the White House argues that waterboarding is legal because the Justice Department said so. But waterboarding is flatly, objectively illegal -- according to both U.S. and international law. Try to find one independent expert to tell you otherwise. And, despite their heated assertions, no one in the White House or at the Justice Department has yet to provide a single vaguely reasonable argument to support their position. All those legal briefs are conveniently considered top secret.

Pariah Nation

Bradley S. Klapper writes for the Associated Press: "The United Nations' torture investigator criticized the White House Wednesday for defending the use of waterboarding and urged the U.S. to give up its defense of 'unjustifiable' interrogation methods.

"The comments from Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, came a day after the Bush administration acknowledged publicly for the first time that waterboarding was used by U.S. government questioners on three terror suspects. . . .

"'This is absolutely unacceptable under international human rights law,' Nowak said. 'Time has come that the government will actually acknowledge that they did something wrong and not continue trying to justify what is unjustifiable.'"

Amnesty International yesterday called for a "full, independent and prompt criminal investigation, following the first public admission by CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, that waterboarding had been used by the agency as an interrogation technique against three detainees held in secret custody.

"'Waterboarding -- where detainees are subjected to simulated drowning -- is torture. Torture is a crime under international law,' said Rob Freer, Amnesty International's researcher on the United States. 'Yet, no one has been held accountable for the authorization and use of waterboarding by U.S. personnel.' . . .


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