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Heading toward the 'dark side'

November 21, 2005|Elisa Massimino | ELISA MASSIMINO is Washington director of Human Rights First.

HORRIFIED U.S. allies are investigating secret CIA prisons that have been operating on European Union territory. Dick Cheney is being called "vice president for torture," and cartoons depict him wielding thumbscrews and the rack. In political commentaries, the Bush administration is skewered for hypocrisy as it insists that "we don't torture" while fighting to preserve its right to do so.

Still, the administration will not yield on its demand that U.S. intelligence officials must be given the right to use cruel, inhumane and degrading methods on terrorism suspects.

The administration must believe something vital is at stake to withstand the public reprobation -- and political damage -- its position is creating. At bottom, this is about executive power: The administration insists that in fighting the "global war on terror," it can accept no limits on the powers of the commander in chief.

In staking out such a position on torture, President Bush has moved far from the mainstream of his own party. On one side are Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and 89 other senators, a majority of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, former Joint Chiefs chairmen Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili and more than two dozen other retired senior military leaders. All insist that the moral standing of the United States and the safety of its troops demand an unequivocal rejection of torture and other abuse of prisoners in our custody. On the other side is the White House.

The president says all prisoners will be treated humanely. But the world is not reassured. Maybe that's because his administration is fighting McCain's anti-torture legislation tooth and nail, even threatening to veto the $453-billion defense appropriations bill that would fund combat operations in Iraq, just to kill McCain's amendment. The president's actions speak louder than his words.

Why is the White House opposing McCain's amendment with such vehemence? For months, administration officials have insisted that, in some cases, interrogators need cruel tactics to elicit vital information that would protect American lives. They assert that the government has obtained such information using these techniques, but they have never come forward with details to substantiate the claim.

In contrast, numerous CIA, FBI and military interrogators insist that they neither want nor need such authority. Even John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, recently declined to support the vice president's claim that harsh tactics produce actionable intelligence.

As one veteran interrogator said, "The only thing torture guarantees is pain -- and sometimes death." Of the more than 80 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody, the Pentagon has classified 27 as criminal homicides. At least seven of those people were tortured to death. And dead men don't talk. So if cruelty and abuse are not the key to unlocking the secrets enemy prisoners hold, why the pitched battle against McCain?

The answer is executive power. Since 9/11, the administration has claimed sweeping authority for the president to fight terrorism, and has vigorously opposed any challenge by either Congress or the courts to the powers of the commander in chief in wartime. The McCain fight is the latest chapter in this four-year struggle, which tests the fundamental principle of separation of powers. A victory for the McCain amendment will help reaffirm an essential part of our constitutional system -- securing checks and balances over the executive branch.

As passage of the McCain amendment appears more likely, the White House is now lobbying to shield from liability CIA agents who may have already abused prisoners in interrogation This concern for covert operatives is in sharp contrast to the long prison terms low-ranking soldiers are now serving for similar abuses. But these soldiers, whose actions are governed by military law, were not given advance approval to engage in the abuse. The CIA apparently was.

In its war on terror, the administration has sought to portray certain people as somehow beneath the law and therefore unworthy of humane treatment. Now Congress is finally taking a closer look at the administration's claim that some are above the law. Let's hope Congress holds its ground. Nothing less than the country's founding principles are at stake.

Time is running out for the torture lobby. The question, as McCain puts it, of "who we are" will likely be decided in the coming weeks. Are we a people who reject the inhumanity depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos and many more serious cases of abuse that cameras didn't capture? Or are we -- as Cheney says we must be -- willing to go to the "dark side" to fight terrorism?

The question is a momentous one. Our answer will not only define the national character for years to come but will affect -- in ways we may not yet fully understand -- our ability to defeat the terrorist enemy who has precipitated this moral crisis.

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