December 15, 2005, 9:15 A.M.
We Have Ways. . . It seems that the debate on the treatment of prisoners detained by the US should be easy, and that it should produce clear guidelines and rules for those in charge of detainees. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Senator John McCain has introduced legislation to prohibit the cruel, inhumane and humiliating treatment of prisoners detained by the US military. The White house is resisting the passage of this legislation for several reasons. First and foremost, the popularity of the McCain legislation (actually it exists as an amendment to a defense finance package) makes a veto difficult, if not impossible to sustain. Even more significant, however, is the administration’s motivation for resisting the legislation in its current form and their obvious intention to keep options open in the treatment of US prisoners.
No where is this more evident than in Vice President Cheney’s early efforts to exempt prisoners held by the CIA from the McCain bill. Apparently the CIA has been designated the torture arm of the US government and therefore they need some “flexibility” in the guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. Earlier this week however the Army tried to jump on the bandwagon by producing a new manual that appeared designed to undercut McCain’s plan.
The House of Representatives voted 308 to 122 yesterday to support the McCain amendment. The funding bill to which McCain’s legislation would ultimately be attached, does not contain the McCain language at this time because the amendment is being discussed in a committee of conference where it is the subject of intense debate and White House pressure. In October the Senate voted, 90 to 9 to approve the measure. Until this recent vote, the House had resisted approving the McCain bill in order to avoid a direct confrontation with the White House. This vote is only advisory at this time, but it advises the House negotiators, appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate spending bills in the conference committee, to accept the Senate position on the bill. The vote sends a clear message of support and puts the House on record as supporting Mr. McCain's provision for the first time. This support vote comes at a time when McCain is at a crucial stage of tense negotiations with the White House, which strongly opposes his measure.
Certainly Senator, former POW, and subject of torture, John McCain's has better credentials than most of us when it comes to discussions about torture. But as with any debate, there are other, valid points that have to be weighed before the final verdict is in. The administration has said that the prohibitive language of the McCain bill ties the hands of interrogators, and leaves captives secure in the belief that they will not suffer pain or humiliation at the hands of their captors, that they will be well fed, get a good night’s sleep, and that they will suffer no consequences as a result of their refusal to cooperate with their captors. In other words, they will have no incentive to provide information.
The White House philosophy is directed at leaving options open where critical information can be obtained by detainees, especially when they are at least in fear of possible torture. The best example is the criminal who has buried a child alive in a field and who refuses to tell investigators of the child’s whereabouts. That person, under our current laws, can be secure in the belief that he will not be tortured by police if he continues to refuse to divulge critical information. The administration’s position is that if that person were told that, in certain cases such as his, torture was permitted, the subject would be more inclined to talk. The problem is that if he persists in his refusal, investigators are technically free to truss him up with electrodes on his testicles until he does talk.
Herein lies the dilemma. On one hand, we can all see the critical need to get information that can, in turn, make us safer. In some cases, like in the case of the missing child or terrorist attack, there is a huge emotional component and a sense of urgency. The idea of keeping options open in extreme cases seems appealing in this context. To say otherwise is to suggest that, as a parent you would not go to the most extreme measures to protect your child, for example torture. I know I would.
The problem with this analogy for me is that the government wants to keep its options open, and in so doing, ask us to trust that it will not abuse the authority given to it by using its most extreme options only in the most extreme circumstance. The McCain bill has come up at this time because the current administration has already abused that trust. There are people, even citizens, being held in terrible conditions and who are being tortured by some definition of the term right now and the government wants exceptions to the anti-torture law so that the practice can continue.
Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who sponsored Mr. McCain's language, said in support of the bill: "Torture does not help us win the hearts and minds of the people it's used against, Congress is obliged to speak out." "If we allow torture in any form," Mr. Murtha said, "we abandon our honor."
This debate is happening at a time when our government lacks credibility both at home and abroad. At the same time that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is traveling the globe assuring the world that the US is not currently torturing anybody, her boss is lobbying to soften anti-torture language in legislation that will govern the course of future prisoner treatment. This is a little reminiscent of the good soldier, Colon Powell, assuring the world that we were invading Iraq because it possessed weapons of mass destruction. The government’s position is disingenuous, but even this fact does not make the debate any easier.
The fact is that we need information on what potential threats to our security exist. This need is even more acute when we stand as an occupying army in a region of the world where people are already predisposed to hate and distrust us. There must be ways, short of inhumanity, by which this information can be obtained. I’m afraid that the Bush administration has made the use of torture an option by its own actions in failing to gain support and consensus for its actions, and by demonstrating that it has little or no regard for the opinions of its allies or its enemies. The outing of Valerie Plame is but one example of the administration’s complete disregard for reasonable, methodical, and acceptable methods of intelligence gathering. The message sent to potential sources of information by that act of treason was to say to all of those individuals or countries that our government puts politics first, and that it therefore could not be relied on to protect them. The other shoe has been dropped when we say that we will keep open the option for torture when those same potential sources refuse to cooperate voluntarily. Our government’s position is now that we will abandon the carrot and adopt the water board as our principal tool for intelligence gathering. In short, by foreclosing all other available options for gathering in formation, they have left torture as their only option.
Clearly Senator McCain does not trust that our current government can set limits on the treatment of prisoners and therefore he feels the need to tie military funding to prisoner treatment. If it is a matter of trust, I choose Senator McCain.