US stand against torture: firm enough?
As America takes aim at terrorists, international law - and a core US value - may hangin the balance.
Is the United States engaging in torture? Most US officials wouldn't hesitate to state that torture - the intentional inflicting of severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, to obtain information - is unlawful and morally unacceptable.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet 10 months after the stunning revelations of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, questions about the interrogation of suspected terrorists are again stirring debate in political, legal, and military circles.
What fuels concern, some say, is that various government memoranda since 9/11 related to torture and the rules of war send a signal that the norms are different than in the past, and that new standards for interrogation are not yet clear. At the same time, some in legal and political circles are suggesting that torture could be justified under certain circumstances - a position others view with alarm.
Even as the Army sentenced reservist Charles Graner Jr. to 10 years on Saturday for his ringleader role at Abu Ghraib, stories continued to surface. The Justice and Defense Departments are investigating FBI complaints of abusive military methods at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. Press reports say close to 20 prisoners have died in US custody at other sites, and "ghost detainees" are being held by the US outside the knowledge of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reported practices at these sites range from sexual humiliation to waterboarding, which makes a prisoner think he is drowning.
In a poll conducted early this month by Gallup/CNN/USA Today, the US public expressed strong disapproval of such practices.
Both President Bush and his attorney general nominee, Alberto Gonzales, say they abhor torture and that the US does not engage in it. Yet other leaders - from Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham to retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - suggest that the country has lost the moral high ground.
Legal experts acknowledge that defining torture is a difficult task, but say that the Bush administration's reframing of the legal context for US policy sparked the debate. Before 9/11, the US followed the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions on rules of war. Memos by Mr. Gonzales, counsel to the president, and Justice Department staff have since argued that the US faces an unprecedented situation - fighting an enemy that violates the rules of war, an enemy that does not merit the protection of the rules.
In a January 2002 memo, Gonzales called parts of the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." Although Secretary of State Colin Powell vigorously protested, Mr. Bush directed that detainees at Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and other secret sites be held as unlawful combatants unprotected by the conventions, though "treated humanely."
The most strenuous objections have come from those with military experience.
In a recent letter to Congress, General Shalikashvili and 11 retired military officers wrote: "Repeatedly in our past, the United States has confronted foes that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a scope or nature unlike any we had previously faced. But we have been far more steadfast in the past in keeping faith with our national commitment to the rule of law." The letter contends that recent detention and interrogation polices have undermined intelligence-gathering and increased risks facing US troops overseas.
In August 2002, a Justice Department memo defined torture so narrowly that it eliminated anything short of inflicting pain equal to that "accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." In the wake of public outcry, the department last month replaced that definition with a broader one, though critics charge that loopholes remain. And last month the White House pressed Congress to drop legislation that would have imposed restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measures by intelligence officers.
The US is using torture, says Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University Law School, who deplores what he calls the hypocrisy of official statements on the topic. A better method, he suggests, would be to legitimize torture in limited instances, such as "ticking bomb" scenarios when a prisoner may have information that could prevent an impending disaster.