CHICAGO -- Senators will have a lot of questions for Gen. Michael V. Hayden before they decide how to vote on his nomination. But they should not confirm him or anyone else as CIA director unless, at minimum, he is willing to utter two simple words: No waterboarding.
Waterboarding is an interrogation method that involves immersing a prisoner's head in water, or pouring water over his face, to create a terrifying sensation of drowning. It's about as cruel a technique as you can devise without leaving scars. Experts say it can cause lasting mental trauma. It's condemned by the State Department as a form of torture when it's used by foreign governments, such as Tunisia and Kenya.
It has also been used by the CIA on suspected al-Qaida members in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Numerous present and former officers have admitted as much in confidential interviews with the news media. In 2004, a CIA inspector general concluded that waterboarding and other methods approved by the agency after 9/11 probably violated the international Convention Against Torture.
Outgoing Director Porter J. Goss has insisted that the CIA does not engage in torture and does obey the law. But this is an example of the administration's talent for deception through obfuscation. The Bush administration insists that only the most extreme forms of abuse qualify as torture, and that what the president authorizes in the war on terror cannot be illegal. That way, it can claim to refrain from torturing prisoners or breaking the law while doing both.
So does the CIA still subject prisoners to simulated drowning? When American officials testified last week before a U.N. committee on torture in Geneva, they refused to discuss the issue. But last year, Mr. Goss said waterboarding falls into "an area of what I would call professional interrogation techniques."
Conservatives conveniently forget that the torture convention was signed by President Ronald Reagan. It affords no help to those looking for loopholes: It bars not only torture but also any "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" that falls short of torture.
The treaty says explicitly, "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
Waterboarding is not the only CIA instrument that violates basic standards on the treatment of captives. Others include sleep deprivation, forced nudity, exposure to cold, shackling in painful positions and nonstop loud music - often inflicted for days on end. Some prisoners have been turned over to governments that routinely use torture. At least four prisoners have died after being mistreated while in CIA custody.
The next director ought to put a stop to such abuses. He also should phase out the secret prisons where some detainees are held. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch explains, most of what CIA officials do in this realm "occurs entirely outside the rule of law. There are no safeguards if they get the wrong man, as they have. There is no oversight, no way to know about mistreatment, and no redress." These "black sites" are an invitation to abuse.
Many people defend brutal methods as essential to get crucial information from terrorists. But even if that's true - something many CIA veterans dispute - it's an argument that proves too much. If waterboarding is a good way to get people to talk, pulling out their fingernails or roasting them over an open fire would be even better. If one form of torture is tolerable, why not others?
The challenge for a civilized society during wartime is to reject unconscionable tactics even though they might be useful. Whether the next CIA director is willing to swear off waterboarding - and whether senators will insist on it - will tell a lot about what kind of society we are.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is email@example.com.