THE BUSH administration has taken two important steps toward correcting its policies on the handling of foreign detainees. On Tuesday administration officials renounced earlier legal opinions that justified the use of torture, and President Bush stated that the United States will not condone its use. At the same time, the Defense Department released its current procedures for prisoner interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, where the administration considers itself unbound by the Geneva Conventions. Both the revised procedures and the administration's statements about them give some cause for concern, and many important questions remain unanswered. But President Bush deserves credit for accepting that some administration policymaking was, as his counsel put it, "controversial" and "subject to misinterpretation," and for breaking with a self-defeating policy of secrecy about the rules for interrogation.
Now that the current Guantanamo procedures are public, Americans and foreign observers alike can see that most are the same as those used by the U.S. military for decades, without controversy and without leading to abuse. Of the seven additional techniques now allowed by the Pentagon under certain circumstances, several -- including "environmental manipulation" and "isolation" -- are considered inhumane or illegal by human rights groups and other governments, as the official policy statement acknowledges. In our view, the administration ought to reconsider whether the intelligence fruits of such questionable techniques, reportedly meager, are worth the political costs and the damage they do to America's reputation, or whether they too should be publicly renounced.
A deeper concern is the administration's continuing failure to disclose the interrogation policies applicable outside Guantanamo, including those used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and those employed by the CIA at its secret detention centers outside the United States. A statement Tuesday by White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales appeared to diminish Mr. Bush's broad assurance on torture: Mr. Gonzales said that the administration considers torture to be "a specific intent to inflict severe physical or mental harm or suffering." That narrow definition, according to the administration's previous reasoning, would allow the infliction of pain short of death or organ failure, and even this would be acceptable if the pain were not the interrogator's primary purpose. If Mr. Bush's pledge is to have credibility around the world, more detailed and restrictive guidelines on torture should be adopted and made public -- or legislated by Congress.
Questions also remain about how the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere came about. The documents confirm that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a number of harsh interrogation techniques for use in Guantanamo in December 2002, including hooding, requiring nudity, placing prisoners in stress positions and using dogs. After military lawyers objected that these violated international law, Mr. Rumsfeld suspended their use a month later. But all these techniques, as well as the restricted practices now approved for Guantanamo, appeared in an interrogation policy issued for Iraq by command of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez in September 2003. Nearly word for word, the harsh methods detailed in memos signed by Mr. Rumsfeld -- which even administration lawyers considered violations of the Geneva Conventions -- were then distributed to interrogators at Abu Ghraib. The procedures in turn could be read to cover much of what is seen in the photographs that have scandalized the world. How did this spread of improper and illegal practices occur? The Bush administration has yet to offer a convincing answer -- or hold anyone accountable for it.