VICE PRESIDENT Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. "Cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners is banned by an international treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the United States. The State Department annually issues a report criticizing other governments for violating it. Now Mr. Cheney is asking Congress to approve legal language that would allow the CIA to commit such abuses against foreign prisoners it is holding abroad. In other words, this vice president has become an open advocate of torture.
His position is not just some abstract defense of presidential power. The CIA is holding an unknown number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, it has refused to register those detainees with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its inspectors. Its prisoners have "disappeared," like the victims of some dictatorships. The Justice Department and the White House are known to have approved harsh interrogation techniques for some of these people, including "waterboarding," or simulated drowning; mock execution; and the deliberate withholding of pain medication. CIA personnel have been implicated in the deaths during interrogation of at least four Afghan and Iraqi detainees. Official investigations have indicated that some aberrant practices by Army personnel in Iraq originated with the CIA. Yet no CIA personnel have been held accountable for this record, and there has never been a public report on the agency's performance.
It's not surprising that Mr. Cheney would be at the forefront of an attempt to ratify and legalize this shameful record. The vice president has been a prime mover behind the Bush administration's decision to violate the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture and to break with decades of past practice by the U.S. military. These decisions at the top have led to hundreds of documented cases of abuse, torture and homicide in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Cheney's counsel, David S. Addington, was reportedly one of the principal authors of a legal memo justifying the torture of suspects. This summer Mr. Cheney told several Republican senators that President Bush would veto the annual defense spending bill if it contained language prohibiting the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by any U.S. personnel.
The senators ignored Mr. Cheney's threats, and the amendment, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), passed this month by a vote of 90 to 9. So now Mr. Cheney is trying to persuade members of a House-Senate conference committee to adopt language that would not just nullify the McCain amendment but would formally adopt cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a legal instrument of U.S. policy. The Senate's earlier vote suggests that it will not allow such a betrayal of American values. As for Mr. Cheney: He will be remembered as the vice president who campaigned for torture.