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The Sacramento Bee (California)

The Torture President

Nat Hentoff

Immediately after 9/11, Colin Powell said the terrorists were clearly engaged in a war on civilization itself. Soon after, as secretary of State, he prophetically warned the president -- and the lawyers drafting and justifying "torture memos" in the Justice Department -- that this country's rejecting the Geneva Conventions and our own laws on the treatment of terrorism-related prisoners would "undermine public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain." Increasingly, as Powell predicted, while the president strongly insists that the CIA be allowed to continue practicing what Bush calls "its specialized interrogations" in its secret prisons, and "renditions" (kidnapping Europeans to be tortured elsewhere), we have lost the trust and respect of many our allies' citizens.

Significant, moreover, is the refusal of FBI Director Robert Mueller to permit his agents to engage in such "coercive" CIA-style interrogations that often involve torture.

Also opposing the tortured use of language by high officials of the administration to disguise this lawless treatment of prisoners, which would make any such "evidence" thrown out of our federal courts, are Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Nonetheless, on March 8, George W. Bush vetoed a bill that includes a mandate that there be a single standard of interrogation by all our forces -- very intentionally including the CIA.

As a result of Bush's veto, the United States, by validating torture as a tool of interrogation, has become a less civilized nation. The bill the president disdained (thereby staining his legacy) would have made the Army Field Manual the standard of all interrogations. Among the practices it prohibits are: placing hoods or sacks over prisoners' heads (as in CIA "renditions"); exposing them to extreme heat or cold (as often reported); and waterboarding (as disclosed about CIA prisoners at "black sites"), a procedure that makes the prisoner believe he is about to drown -- and he will drown if it's not stopped.

The CIA has finally admitted it has used waterboarding, and though it claims it no longer does, the White House says that this "specialized interrogation" remains potentially permissible in future interrogations.

John McCain has called waterboarding an "exquisitely" painful torture, but he voted against making the Army Field Manual the standard for interrogations, thereby giving cover to some of the members of Congress who joined him to support the president. Why criticize them when the Republican presidential nominee has been the icon of those, in and out of our military, who oppose torture? This human rights status for McCain has now been tarnished badly.

In contrast to McCain's current stance, there has been continuing strong support of including the Army Field Manual in the CIA techniques by 31 retired Army, Navy and Marine Corps generals who insist -- as Human Rights First reports -- that "the United States not sanction the use of interrogation methods it would find unacceptable if inflicted by the enemy against captured Americans." Documented reports of CIA interrogation methods by human rights organizations, and by both American and overseas reporters, include accounts of barbarous assaults on prisoners that, if practiced on American captives in other countries, would enrage us to demand swift and harsh punishment of the perpetrators.

It has long been evident that the Bush administration, in addition to giving the CIA extra-legal powers, deliberately incarcerated terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in its belief that the American rule of law would not apply there, any more than in the CIA secret prisons or the torture cells in countries where CIA captives are sent in "renditions." Currently, as an index of how the CIA has shamed us among our allies, CBS News and the Associated Press reported (March 8 ) that according to Newsweek: "The Canadian government is refusing to use testimony from alleged Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah (now at Guantanamo Bay) in its prosecution of two terror suspects, because the testimony was acquired during CIA interrogations in which Zubaydah was waterboarded." The CIA destroyed videotapes of that "specialized" questioning to hide it from our laws.

Human Rights Watch's senior terrorism counsel Jennifer Daskal predicts that Bush "will go down in history as the torture president" for his continuing protection of CIA "specialized" procedures. Congressman William Delahunt, D-Mass., adds: "History is going to judge us all" -- including the next president if he or she continues to debase our values as we fight the terrorists.

If the president is so convinced he's right, why doesn't he demand that Petraeus order his troops in Iraq to discard the Army Field Manual, which the general insists they not stray from as their standard. He strongly rejects the use of torture.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance" (Seven Stories Press, 2004).

Copyright © 2008 The Sacramento Bee

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