IS THE CIA DOING the United States more harm than good by interrogating suspected terrorists in secret prisons overseas? Inquiring minds on the Senate Intelligence Committee want to know, and they're entitled to an answer. And in pressing the administration to justify this shadowy program, senators should demand answers on a related question: Will the CIA continue to subject prisoners to what President Bush demurely calls "alternative" interrogation techniques that may border on torture?
In approving an authorization bill for intelligence agencies last month, the committee stopped short of de-funding the program but recommended in a report that it be shut down unless the administration proved that it is "necessary, lawful and in the best interests of the United States."
That the CIA program survives became clear in April, when the administration revealed that Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a former advisor to Osama bin Laden, was being transferred to Guantanamo Bay from CIA custody. What isn't clear is whether the CIA has forsworn interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation and "water-boarding." Some members of Congress believe that these and other cruel and degrading techniques were ruled out by legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and reluctantly signed by Bush in December 2005. But the president confused matters with a signing statement in which he reserved the right to interpret the law in a way consistent with "protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."
In September, after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees enjoy the protections of the Geneva Convention, then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the CIA had discontinued "tough" and "aggressive" interrogation techniques. But the next month, Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which he said would allow "the continuation of a CIA program that has been one of America's most potent tools in fighting the war on terror." Administration lawyers are still devising new guidelines for the CIA that will allow unspecified "enhanced" interrogation techniques.
All of this has created ambiguity about a subject that cries out for clarity. Torture violates basic norms of American society; it is wrong wherever practiced and by whatever euphemism. If the administration persists in defining torture down, Congress should push back -- by using the power of the purse. As McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, put it in the Republican debate in South Carolina: "It's not about the terrorists; it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."