Tuesday, November 8, 2005

A bipartisan group of senators has attacked the president’s intention to veto any legislation that includes Sen. John McCain’s so-called anti-torture amendment. They claim that failure to make clear U.S. interrogation policy tarnishes not only our international standing, but also subverts the very idea of America.

In light of recent interrogation abuses, their position is all very idealistic and principled, but also disingenuous, since the amendment wouldn’t clarify U.S. policy at all. What it would do is create a de facto zero-tolerance policy for proven interrogation techniques and provide political cover for its supporters in the event of another terrorist attack.

In Mr. McCain’s words, the amendment “would establish the Army Field Manual as the standard for interrogation of all detainees.” It further states that “no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the [U.S.] Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Not many would argue with that, and indeed few have. Ninety senators have already voted for it, but that’s just the point. The amendment doesn’t say anything that isn’t already considered U.S. policy. The Army Field Manual is not exactly a classified document — anyone can buy it at Amazon.com, including terrorists, for $12.89.

Also, all agree that U.S. interrogators should not be engaged in mafia-like treatment of prisoners. This means no vices, pliers, racks, flames or anything that repeats the worst of medieval torture tactics. And lest we forget, it was the military itself which began investigating the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison before pictures of it were ever sent to the press.

At the same time, all but the staunchest moral absolutists would agree that some form of unpleasant interrogation is necessary to thwart future terrorist attacks. Yet the McCain amendment is purposely vague on what is actually allowed. Is sleep deprivation “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”? What about sensory deprivation or yelling? It doesn’t say.

Instead, the amendment uses euphemisms like “inhuman” and “degrading” to gloss over any controversial political ground. Especially now, no politician wants to be seen as endorsing lesser degrees of torture, but all love being against “torture” in the abstract. Seen in this way, the amendment is next to useless, aside from acting as a public-relations stunt to soothe the folks at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

But what’s most troubling is that the amendment likely would be interpreted as a zero-tolerance policy against all effective interrogation techniques, which explains the administration’s resistance. After September 11, the president rightly determined that terrorists taken on the battlefield are not enemy combatants and therefore are not under the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Legal critics worry the amendment could be read to overturn this policy. No doubt this is the actual goal of certain senators, who have never agreed with the administration’s view.

For the rest, however, it’s a political matter. Should another September 11-like event happen and another commission connect the dots and find that we in fact had one of the perpetrators in custody or someone knowledgeable of the plot, but that we didn’t do what was necessary to extract the information, supporters of the McCain amendment could then say they were never against “stress techniques,” just “torture.”

This is an unfortunate situation to be in during a war in which winning the hearts and minds of Muslims is essential to victory. In front of the whole world, Washington is noisily arguing the particulars of Muslim interrogation, and conceding a huge propaganda victory to our enemies in the process. Rarely has there been such an unwise public debate.

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