US Experts Unconvinced by Bush Assurance on Torture
Published on Friday, June 25, 2004 by Reuters
US Experts Unconvinced by Bush Assurance on Torture

WASHINGTON - United States legal experts and human rights activists on Thursday questioned assurances by president George W Bush that the US government never ordered, and would never order, detainees to be tortured.

The White House this week released a thick file of declassified papers to try to demonstrate that Bush and his top aides, in setting policy on interrogation methods, insisted that detainees be treated humanely.

"Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: we do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being," Bush told reporters at the White House.

The administration also appeared to distance itself from a Justice Department memo that argued that the president, as commander in chief, was not constitutionally bound by key US anti-torture laws.

The argument that Bush was not bound by anti-torture laws had caused a firestorm at home and abroad, said Tufts University international law professor Michael Glennon.

"Why have a Constitution at all if the president can unilaterally decide who to torture, when to torture and why to torture?" he said.

He said the significance of the White House retreat was still unclear.

"We don't know what policy is going to replace this. The White House and Justice Department have not said how they interpret the law and ultimately their views may not be very different. It may also be that the unseemly practices will be driven further underground," said Glennon.

The August 2002 Justice Dept. memo had also attempted to redefine the meaning of torture as "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

Deborah Pearlstein of Human Rights First said it was clear the administration had allowed many interrogation techniques classed as torture under international law.

"Based on what we've seen out of the Justice and Defence departments so far, it's clear that officials at the highest levels of the administration approved policies inconsistent with US obligations under international treaties against torture," she said.

"And even after Bush's statement, we still don't know what methods are still being used against detainees held in secret detention centres in Afghanistan and elsewhere."

The documents released by the White House showed Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002 approving harsh interrogation techniques for Taleban and al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, such as hooding, stripping and isolating them and using dogs to intimidate them.

Rumsfeld rescinded many of these methods a few weeks later and approved less aggressive techniques in April of 2003.

Republican Rep. Frank Wolf this week wrote to the Justice Department expressing concern about the memo and asking for an investigation.

For mental suffering to be considered as torture, the memo said it would have to cause "significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years."

"I am deeply concerned that this memorandum provides legal justification for the US government to commit cruel, inhumane and degrading acts, including torture, on prisoners in US custody," the Virginia lawmaker wrote.

The treatment of detainees became a major story following a scandal over abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Former Democratic congressman Tom Andrews said the White House had carefully weighed which documents to release.

"We need to know what they left out. And if Bush is arguing that torture was never ordered, then why did the administration seek legal guidance on torture? Why did they need to discover what they thought they could legally get away with?" he said.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal Washington think-tank, said the Bush administration had been forced to retreat because it had been badly embarrassed at home and abroad, not because it had a change of heart.

"They have changed their rhetoric but only because they were caught," she said.

In the face of international outrage over Abu Ghraib, the United States was forced on Wednesday to drop an effort at the United Nations to guarantee American soldiers immunity from the new International Criminal Court.

At home, a Washington Post/ABC poll this week found that Bush's approval rating on Iraq had dropped by 13 percentage points since April. Another Washington Post/ABC News Poll in May found that 63 per cent of Americans oppose torture, even when a suspect is thought to have information about an imminent terrorist attack.

© 2004 Reuters Ltd