Saying no to torture

October 07, 2005

It may be a rebuff to their man in the White House, but the 46 Republican senators who joined their colleagues across the aisle to approve a measure setting rules on interrogating foreign prisoners did the right thing. Now they and their fellows in the House must ensure that the measure, a rider on a $440 billion military spending bill, makes it into the final version of the legislation - and that President Bush signs it.

The measure outlaws "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of foreign prisoners held by the U.S. military. It requires captors to follow rules set in the newly revised Army Field Manual. It is a logical, necessary response to the continued reports of U.S. military members abusing prisoners, sometimes to death, and the lack of concern on the part of their leaders.

When an Army captain writes to U.S. senators that despite his efforts over the course of 17 months, "I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees," someone needs to step in. And not to harass the captain involved, Ian Fishback, who has been subject to hours of interrogation by his superior officers since he sent his letter in September to Sens. John McCain and John W. Warner.

Americans and the rest of the world have witnessed the results of the ambiguous instructions offered by the U.S. military. Photographs and stories of pain and death document the poor management at Abu Ghraib prison, although only the low-level soldiers in the photographs have faced criminal charges. Reports continue to come out of torture and abuse at the base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some prisoners are so desperate they are on hunger strike, their lawyers say. Most recently, Captain Fishback and others have reported that prisoners taken during the fighting in Fallujah were beaten, doused with chemical irritants and forced to pose in humiliating or painful positions. It's time to set a uniform standard.

The rules set in the Senate measure are not onerous; they merely repeat and codify what has been said before. The United States does not condone torture. The military should follow its printed code of conduct in all cases.

A similar measure was sidelined in the summer by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, responding at least partly to pressure from the White House. Advisers have warned that the president might veto the current bill if the anti-torture language is included, arguing that the wording diminishes the "flexibility" he needs to interpret rules differently during wartime. There is no such need. Americans' values do not change from wartime to peacetime and back again; neither should their laws.

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