No Question: Congress must pass a categorical ban on torture

From The Crimson

A dramatist could not have hoped to conjure a better contrast. On one hand, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, publicly champions a categorical ban on the torture of prisoners. On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney, who did not serve in Vietnam, makes closed-door appeals to senators for an exception clause to torture in circumstances of eminent danger.

In one of the best-supported congressional revolts in President George W Bush’s five years in office, the Senate voted 90-9 last month in favor of McCain’s ban. But the bill’s fate still depends on negotiations in the Conference Committee of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. And not only is the House more loyal to the administration, but three of the nine senators who voted against the measure are on the Conference Committee.

However, McCain’s absolute ban on torture ought to be adopted by the House and signed by the president if the Congress and administration are to maintain any semblance of an ethical position on this matter.

According to the November 2005 New Yorker, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can be implicated in four deaths of detainees in United States’ detention facilities abroad’among them Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, and Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan. Yet, due to Justice Department memos that argued that Iraqi insurgents were not protected by international law and that lesser forms of torture were legal, these CIA officers will not be facing charges. McCain’s ban would close such loopholes, returning the U.S. to the ethical position it had taken for five decades. According to human rights groups, the bill would give protection to some ten thousand foreign suspects.

Supporters of torture often point to the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario’in which torturing one suspect could potentially save thousands of lives’as a justifiable reason to consider torture as a last resort. But to think primarily in terms of such TV scenarios is unrealistic given that we never have all the important pieces of information to make such judgments. In the experience of Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a military intelligence specialist who conducted interrogations in Vietnam, Panama, and Iraq during Desert Storm, torture is ‘simply not a good way to get information.’ According to Herrington, nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk with no ‘stress methods’ at all. And even if the remaining person is the correct suspect, he will ‘just tell you anything to get you to stop.’

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Israel’arguably the most experienced democratic court in dealing with such ‘imminent danger’ scenarios’outlawed any use of torture. Were the U.S. to make such a decision, it would reflect preexisting domestic laws, such as the Army Field Manual and bring the country in accordance with international law, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Moreover, the use of torture undermines the morale of U.S. troops due to the prospect of reciprocation of such methods by their enemies. It is also likely to outrage any international actor, who cannot understand why the U.S. refuses to treat others by the same standards of humane treatment required at home by the U.S. Constitution.

No better are U.S. practices of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ the outsourcing of torture practices to Syria, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt’all of which have been cited for human-rights violations by the State Department. A corollary to this practice is CIA operated secret prisons in Thailand and Eastern Europe, as recently reported by Dana Priest in The Washington Post. Such forays into ethically murky territory’to say the least’do no small harm to U.S. credibility abroad.

On Jan. 27, President Bush assured us that ‘torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.’ Yesterday in Panama, he repeated those categorical words, yet he continues to support the Vice President in his opposition to 90 senators, Colin Powell, the advice of the 9/11 Commission Report, domestic law, and international law. It is such inconsistencies that have led more than half of Americans to doubt Bush’s integrity for the first time ever according to an ABC News and Washington Post poll. Rarely does a case divide itself on such clear moral lines. A moral president would not disagree.