CIA DIRECTOR Porter J. Goss insists that his agency is innocent of torturing the prisoners it is holding in secret detention centers around the world. "This agency does not torture," he said in an interview this week with USA Today. "We use lawful capabilities to collect vital information, and we do it in a variety of unique and innovative ways, all of which are legal and none of which are torture." Mr. Goss didn't describe any of those "innovative" interrogation techniques, nor has his agency allowed its secret prisons to be visited by the International Red Cross or any other monitor. But some of the people who work for him provided a description of six "enhanced interrogation techniques" to ABC News, because they believe "the public needs to know the direction their agency has chosen," the network reported. Thanks to that disclosure, it's possible to compare Mr. Goss's words with reality.
The first three techniques reported by ABC involve shaking or striking detainees in an effort to cause pain and fear. The fourth consists of forcing a prisoner to stand, handcuffed and with shackled feet, for up to 40 hours. Then comes the "cold cell": Detainees are held naked in a cell cooled to 50 degrees, and periodically doused with cold water. Last is "waterboarding," a technique that's already been widely reported. According to the information supplied to ABC: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt." ABC quoted its sources as saying that CIA officers who subjected themselves to waterboarding "lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in."
Are these techniques "not torture," as Mr. Goss claims? In fact, several of them have been practiced by repressive regimes around the world, and they once were routinely condemned by the State Department in its annual human rights reports. By insisting that they are not torture, Mr. Goss sets a new standard -- both for the treatment of detainees by other governments and for the handling of captive Americans. If an American pilot is captured in the Middle East, then beaten, held naked in a cold cell and subjected to simulated drowning, will Mr. Goss say that he has not been tortured?
Are the techniques "legal"? In 1994 the Senate ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment; in doing so, it defined "cruel, inhuman or degrading" as anything that would violate the Fifth, Eighth, or 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The Bush administration has never been clear about whether it considers the CIA's techniques legal by that standard. If it does -- as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has suggested -- then it has opened the way for the FBI to use cold cells and waterboarding on Americans. But the administration also claims a technical loophole: Since the Constitution doesn't apply to foreigners outside the United States, the administration argues that by the Senate's standard, the CIA can use cruel and inhuman methods on foreign detainees held abroad.
Few legal experts outside the administration agree that this loophole exists. To make sure, senators led by Republican John McCain of Arizona are fighting, by means of amendments to the current defense authorization and appropriations bills, to bar the use of "cruel, inhuman and degrading" methods. But Mr. Goss's statements suggest a deeper problem. Even if the legislation passes -- and Mr. Bush has threatened a veto -- the CIA will be led by an administration that has redefined standard torture techniques as "unique and innovative ways" of collecting information. No one beyond Mr. Goss and a handful of senior officials accepts that spin: not the agencies' professionals, or 90 members of the Senate, or the rest of the democratic world. Yet now that the Bush administration has so loosened and degraded the torture standard, the abuse of detainees will become far harder to prevent -- not only in the CIA's clandestine cells but around the world.