Sunday, February 10, 2008

To Torture Or Not To Torture

CIA Director Michael Hayden has acknowledged for the first time publicly that the agency had used the tactic of waterboarding on at least three prisoners nearly five years ago. Waterboarding is an interrogation practice in which, "the victim's lungs fill with water until the procedure is stopped or the victim dies." As Malcolm Nance, a counterterrorism specialist who taught at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school in California, told Congress, "Waterboarding is a long-standing form of torture used by history's most brutal governments, including those of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, North Korea, Iraq, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia." Yesterday, "after years of dodging and dissembling, the Bush administration boldly embraced" its record of torture and said it would "definitely want to consider" using it again. "It will depend upon circumstances," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, adding that future acts of waterboarding would "need the president's approval," and the White House would notify "appropriate members of Congress."

LEGAL PARSING: In 1947, the United States charged a Japanese officer, Yukio Asano, with war crimes for waterboarding a U.S. civilian. "Water boarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in Vietnam 40 years ago." Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said in an interview this month, "There's just no doubt in my mind -- under any set of rules -- waterboarding is torture." But inside the Bush administration, such clarity has succumbed to legal parsing. "I would feel" waterboarding was torture "if it were done to me," Attorney General Michael Mukasey told Congress recently. But Mukasey, who promised to lead a legal review of the practice before being confirmed, is now refusing to brief Congress on the legality of waterboarding. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the New Yorker in January, "Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture." But McConnell said his comments should not be interpreted to reflect an official administration position. When he said waterboarding was "torture," McConnell explained to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), he meant he just personally didn't like water up his nose.

FROM DENIAL TO OPEN ADVOCACY: For years, the White House had done its best to deny the obvious: that it had employed waterboarding against prisoners. When Vice President Dick Cheney told a conservative talk radio host in Oct. 2006 that it would be a "no-brainer" to "dunk" an individual in water if it would save lives, the White House tried to dispel any notion that Cheney was embracing waterboarding. Now the White House strategy has changed -- "the administration has apparently decided that this is a debate they can win out in the open." The switch comes as Congress is considering legislation that "if passed, would require all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies to abide by the Army Field Manual's prohibition against waterboarding." The White House said yesterday it wants to retain the option to use waterboarding, even while President Bush has frequently claimed "we do not torture." "Torture is illegal," Fratto said after McConnell's testimony. "We don't torture -- we maintain and as we have said many times that the programs have been reviewed, and the Department of Justice has determined them to be legal."

SPOTLIGHT ON THE SENATE: In December, the House passed an amendment that extends the current prohibitions in the Army Field Manual against torture to U.S. intelligence agencies and personnel. Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Christopher Bond (R-MO) has said he would lead an effort to remove that requirement when the legislation reaches the Senate floor. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who in the past has made a series of statements against the use of waterboarding, has placed a hold on the anti-waterboarding bill. A number of key Republican swing votes -- including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- will likely make the difference if the bill comes to a vote. McCain has previously called waterboarding a "horrible, odious" technique that "should never be condoned in the U.S."

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