No `maybe' on torture

December 11, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip through Europe last week may have put the last nail in the coffin holding the administration's hopes to stave off new anti-torture legislation. If so, it was money well-spent - Americans need the reassurance of law that their government does not condone and will not practice "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," as the measure puts it.

Ms. Rice might have eased the minds of European leaders with her lawyerly dancing around the definitions of torture, interrogations, secret prisons, rendition and other potentially cruel and unusual tactics, but she did not convince the populace. Nor did she ease the minds of many back home: Her comment in Kiev that the administration no longer exempts U.S. personnel from abiding by the provisions to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, contained in the U.N. Convention Against Torture, implied that at one time it had, and it might again.

Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, who experienced torture and other abuse firsthand as a prisoner in Vietnam, the anti-torture measure is unequivocal. That's necessary in an environment where administration lawyers write memos and working papers on "torture lite" and argue whether nearly drowning a prisoner is really cruel.

The White House last week backed off its threat to veto the measure, and it should speedily pass, both as reassurance and instruction: Some Army leaders have said they and their troops were unclear on what kind of abuse is permissible.

The answer is none. Torture is cruel, it is illegal, it is ineffective. It may have helped lead the United States into warring with Saddam Hussein. The administration tied Iraq's leadership to the terror group al-Qaida chiefly through the testimony of one prisoner, who now says he invented that link in hopes his captors would stop torturing him, sources told The New York Times.

Had Secretary Rice wished to be crystal-clear on the matter, she should have relied on her own State Department's standard fact sheet: "The United States condemns unequivocally the despicable practice of torture." As it is, she and all Americans will find their clarity in the McCain law.

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