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Slippery slope to Abu Ghraib

June 06, 2006

IN AN UNUSUAL MOMENT OF public introspection, President Bush told a recent news conference that "the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time."

Apparently, planners in the Pentagon weren't listening to the president's remarks, or failed to understand their larger import: This country harms its own image -- and puts its troops in harm's way -- when it humiliates and degrades prisoners.

On Monday, The Times' Julian E. Barnes reported that the Defense Department, over the objection of the State Department, has decided to omit from a new Army Field Manual on interrogation a prohibition against "humiliating and degrading treatment" contained in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

Unfortunately, there is a precedent for this deletion. In a 2002 order, President Bush wrote that because Article 3 was designed to deal with conflicts that were not "international" in scope but rather civil conflicts, it didn't apply to Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.

More recently, Pentagon officials -- supported by Vice President Dick Cheney's office -- apparently have come to believe that including the prohibition in the manual would cramp the style of interrogators and create an "unintentional sanctuary" for Al Qaeda fighters. For example, one official complained, adherence to Article 3 might make it difficult to "punch the buttons of a Muslim male" by questioning his manhood.

Even if this were true -- and we doubt whether verbal insults constitute "humiliating and degrading treatment" -- the alternative is worse. Omitting Article 3 from the interrogation manual not only would be handing the enemies of the United States a propaganda victory, but by giving interrogators an inch of discretion, it would be encouraging some of them to take a mile. Such slippage isn't just a matter of speculation. It's what happened at Abu Ghraib.

We have been here before. In 2002, Justice Department lawyers produced a now-infamous memo espousing a ridiculously narrow definition of torture, limiting it to the pain accompanying "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function." The administration repudiated the memo, just as it had second thoughts about a directive from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allowing interrogators to subject detainees to "mild, noninjurious physical conduct" to induce them to talk.

Any plan to omit Article 3 from the interrogation manual justifies the same sort of serious second thoughts. If Rumsfeld can't see that, his newly reflective boss should set him straight.

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