White House claims the right to torture

Nicole Colson eports on the Bush administration's latest attempt to justify waterboarding.

IT WAS supposed to be "case closed" on the question of torture.

Two laws passed by Congress and a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 2006 officially bar the use of torture tactics such as waterboarding--a "simulated" drowning in which detainees are hooded and water is poured into their mouths and noses until they choke--in the interrogation of suspects in the "war on terror." In 2006, the Pentagon published an updated Army field manual limiting interrogation techniques and banning such practices as waterboarding and mock executions.

But last week, the debate about torture was reopened when White House spokesman Tony Fratto asserted that waterboarding is legal, and that the president could authorize the CIA to resume using it "under certain circumstances."

The statement by Fratto at a daily White House press briefing came one day after CIA Director Michael Hayden admitted for the first time in testimony before Congress that the agency used waterboarding on at least three detainees, including alleged al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

The process of "interrogating" Mohammed reportedly left him mentally ill--and caused him to confess to a laundry list of crimes that even administration officials admit he could not have committed.

But the fact that waterboarding is both inhumane and ineffective in producing reliable intelligence doesn't bother the White House.

When asked about Hayden's statements to Congress, Fratto said U.S. intelligence officials "didn't rule anything out" regarding CIA interrogation methods. He went on to say that Bush might consider reauthorizing waterboarding or other torture methods if there is the "belief that an attack might be imminent." According to Fratto, the Justice Department had reviewed waterboarding and "made a determination that its use under specific circumstances and with safeguards was lawful."

These statements aren't a surprise. Attorney General Michael Mukasey recently told the Senate that he would consider waterboarding torture if he was subjected to it--but refused to say that it was illegal for the U.S. to use the practice. And last week, he rejected Congressional calls for a criminal investigation into the CIA's use of waterboarding in 2002 and 2003.

Dick Cheney predictably defended torture as well. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he commented, "It's a good thing we had [detainees] in custody, and it's a good thing we found out what they knew...Would I support those same decisions again today? You're damn right I would."

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IT MIGHT seem strange that the Bush administration is suddenly so willing to discuss waterboarding. For the past five years, officials have tried to silence any discussion on the topic, claiming that it would harm efforts to fight the "war on terror."

But as the Washington Post noted, the administration's comments come in the wake of "the launch of a special U.S. attorney's investigation into the CIA's destruction in 2005 of interrogation videotapes that included footage of waterboarding and other harsh techniques."

It also comes after the announcement that military prosecutors had filed charges including conspiracy, murder and other "war crimes" against six Guantánamo detainees--including Khalid Sheik Mohammed--and would seek the death penalty against them.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights noted, the military tribunals at Guantanámo "are unlawful, unconstitutional and a perversion of justice...[T]he government is seeking to execute people based on this utterly unreliable and tainted evidence: it is difficult to imagine a more morally reprehensible system."

The new "debate" about waterboarding obscures the fact that the administration has almost certainly continued to subject prisoners to different forms of torture--and that the U.S. has a long history of abuses in the name of national defense, committed even when there were laws on the books making them illegal.

Plus, the Bush administration has always had the option of "rendition." When it wasn't expedient for Army interrogators or the CIA to do the dirty work, detainees were transported to countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt for "interrogation" at the hands of police forces known to torture.

So far, all the leading presidential candidates--both Democrats and Republicans--have condemned waterboarding, and Congress is considering a new intelligence bill that would force the CIA to use only those interrogation techniques permitted in the updated Army Field Manual.

But it should be remembered that the Democrats have repeatedly given cover to the Bush administration to carry out such abuses--including voting in favor of the Military Commissions Act, which effectively strips habeus corpus, the centuries-old right of prisoners to have their cases heard in a court, from detainees.

In his confirmation hearings for attorney general last fall, Mukasey refused to classify waterboarding as torture, yet he was approved anyway, with six Democrats voting in favor of his confirmation--and Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all skipping the vote.