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Tortured justifications

November 07, 2005

THE TERRORIST ATTACKS OF 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 Americans. With its response to those attacks, the Bush administration threatens the very idea of America.

The administration's attempt to exempt the CIA from a proposed law barring cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody is the latest instance of an assault on this country's values that began soon after 9/11. In some ways, such chiseling away of core American beliefs is more damaging than any terrorist attack, because it comes from within.

Last week's disclosure by the Washington Post that the CIA runs secret prisons in several Eastern European nations -- sites where men can disappear indefinitely without charges or legal protection -- provides more evidence that our nation's leaders are mocking our ideals.

The bar on cruel and inhumane treatment is part of the Geneva Convention, which the U.S. signed but which President Bush determined did not apply to terrorists, who wear no uniform and fight for no country. Alberto R. Gonzales, formerly Bush's legal counsel and now attorney general, soon after 9/11 derided the Geneva Convention as "quaint" and "obsolete." Although Bush has said detainees will not be tortured and will be treated humanely, the administration's definitions of those terms keep changing.

That's unacceptable. Military and CIA interrogators must be told what is allowed and what is not. Without clear guidelines, mistreatment or torture will continue. The rules should be the same at home and abroad, for soldiers and spies.

The argument that the U.S. should not heed the Geneva Convention because its enemies do not sets the stage for a race to the barbaric bottom. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured during his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, spoke eloquently on the fallacy of the "we'll do what they do" argument last month. He said all American POWs "knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment of them."

McCain engineered a 90-9 endorsement of his proposed law barring "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" of any detainee held by the U.S. government. The law also would make interrogation techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual the standard for handling detainees in Defense Department custody. That would provide needed clarity to soldiers, who have seen colleagues mistreating inmates at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.

The House has not yet approved the bill, but it should. The Senate attached McCain's anti-torture amendment to another bill on Friday, and McCain has vowed to keep attaching it to every piece of Senate legislation until it becomes law. If the president follows through on his threatened veto -- which would be his first -- the House and Senate should override him.

John Yoo, who served in the Justice Department's office of legal counsel when it produced its 2002 memo discussing how to define torture, wrote on the Op-Ed page of The Times last year: "Our system has a place for the discussion of morality and policy. Our elected and appointed officials must weigh these issues in deciding on how it will conduct interrogations. Ultimately, they must answer to the American people for their choices."

Those sentiments are even more valid a year later. It's now clear our leaders made some appalling choices. It's time they started answering for them.

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