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The truth on torture

Bush's double-talk and a recent veto are shameful. Congress can help reclaim the moral high ground.

March 11, 2008

'We do not torture," President Bush insists, yet that assurance is accompanied by an unspoken "but." In vetoing legislation that would require CIA interrogators to abide by the same humanitarian standards imposed on their counterparts in the U.S. military, Bush again has drowned out his denials with an ominous silence about just what "enhanced" interrogation tactics he considers appropriate.

In a shameful Saturday radio address justifying his veto, Bush argued that CIA interrogators can't be confined to techniques allowed by the Army Field Manual "because the manual is publicly available and easily accessible on the Internet." So, of course, are the Geneva Convention and the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." By the president's logic, acceptance of the humanitarian standards included in those documents also deprives the United States of the element of surprise.

Bush has been playing a dangerous game, forswearing torture while making the argument that suspected terrorists must be made to give up their secrets at any cost. In his radio address, he claimed that the CIA interrogation program pried loose information that helped avert a series of terrorist attacks, including one in Los Angeles. If the stakes are that high and the alternatives futile, why not torture?

The best answer to that question was offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2005. Calling terrorists "the quintessence of evil," McCain insisted that "it's not about them; it's about us. This battle we're in is about the things we stand for and believe in and practice. And that is an observance of human rights, no matter how terrible our adversaries may be."

Alas, the man who spoke those words before he became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee voted against the legislation Bush vetoed. But McCain was as right in 2005 as he is wrong now. By reserving the right to use unspecified enhanced interrogation methods, the United States -- especially the United States under this president -- abandons the moral high ground. That is why, on balance, it serves America's interests for there to be a single standard for interrogation techniques.

The Army Field Manual provides such a single standard. And, yes, it tells America's enemies in specific terms what this country will not do. Are those the techniques Bush wants to preserve as options for the CIA? If so, terrorists already know from the Field Manual what they involve and, according to the president, can undergo training to resist them. If the president has other, even harsher, tactics in mind, then the assurance that "we don't torture" rings even hollower. Congress should end his word games by voting to override his veto.

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