Tortured defense

February 07, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - In the debate over how to interrogate terrorists, the Bush administration and its allies are happy to take on what they see as soft-headed human rights activists. They ought to be embarrassed, though, when they are also at odds with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

This departure became clear during the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales for attorney general. One of the most controversial issues was a 2002 Justice Department memorandum sent to Mr. Gonzales, then counsel to the president, providing guidance on the restrictions imposed by the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

The memo, written by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, redefined torture to practically repeal the ban. Unless mistreatment caused the kind of pain associated with "organ failure, impairment of bodily functions or even death," it wasn't torture and therefore was allowed.

This interpretation was so cockeyed that the administration eventually was forced to abandon it - though not until late last year. At the hearing, Mr. Gonzales solemnly declared that "torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration." But when asked about the Bybee memo, which he had solicited, he admitted, "I don't have a disagreement with the conclusions."

Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein about "forced nudity, the threatening of detainees with dogs and `water-boarding'" - a method designed to simulate drowning - Mr. Gonzales said we "should avoid the use of such harsh methods of questioning if possible." If possible?

The treaty has two major components. The first is a ban on torture. The second is a ban on "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture." Mr. Gonzales says the administration would never engage in outright torture anywhere in the world. But he insists that the U.S. government is fully entitled to use any other method beyond our shores. He told the committee, "There is no legal prohibition under the Convention Against Torture on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas." Cruelty at home? No way. Cruelty abroad? Let's get it on!

Mr. Gonzales' weird interpretation requires grossly distorting the position taken by the last two Republican presidents. One problem those administrations faced was the meaning of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." They worried that Europeans might define it to mean that detainees should get satin sheets and weekly manicures.

So the United States specified that it means exactly what "cruel and unusual" treatment means under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution - making it a precise command rather than a potentially sweeping obligation.

But Mr. Gonzales tries to take that substantive definition and convert it into a geographic limit. He told the Judiciary Committee that since the amendments don't apply outside the United States, neither does the ban on cruelty in the torture convention.

The administration and its supporters would like to preserve our options when it comes to certain coercive interrogation methods. But whether we think something is cruel depends on whether we're giving or receiving. The State Department's annual report on human rights has regularly condemned such methods, when practiced by other governments, as a violation of the torture convention.

But on the treaties governing torture and related matters, the administration resembles W. C. Fields. When Mr. Fields was on his deathbed, a visitor was surprised to find the old reprobate reading the Bible. Asked why, Mr. Fields replied: "I'm looking for loopholes."

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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