Erasing the gray areas of prisoner abuse

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In politically polarized America, when 90 US senators agree on something, it should prompt attention. That's the case with an amendment to a defense spending bill that, more than a year after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse story broke, bans US mistreatment of detainees.

Proposed by Republican senator John McCain of Arizona, the text realigns the US with accepted international standards against torture and is based on the Army's own field manual. It states that "no individual in the custody or under the physical control of the [US] Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."

Yet the Bush administration, wary of another 9/11, wants an exception for prisoners held by the CIA - presumably the most valuable of all captives. President Bush initially vowed to veto any legislation containing the McCain amendment. The senator said Friday he and his supporters will add the (unchanged) amendment to every key Senate bill until it becomes law.

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The White House effort to legislate a loophole takes on added significance in light of last week's report by the Washington Post that the CIA has been operating a covert prison system overseas. Such a system - in which prisoners are held indefinitely, secretly, and without legal recourse - would be illegal in the US.

The Bush administration took a detrimental detour from the standards which McCain and his fellow senators seek to revive when it decided in 2002 that "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism fall outside international standards.

Even after the tragic abuse at Abu Ghraib, and even after cases of prisoner mistreatment in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the administration stubbornly holds to the view that internationally accepted rules don't apply because the war on terrorism is not a conventional one.

The president strongly condemns torture. Yet CIA interrogators are permitted to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as "waterboarding" - making a prisoner believe he's drowning. Some of the CIA tactics violate US military law and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the US is a signatory.

No question, the conventional war label does not apply to this war, and the administration's point that intelligence plays a critical role is well taken. But does intelligence gathered under duress produce reliable information? McCain, a POW in North Vietnam, speaks from experience when he says prisoners will say anything to stop pain.

Despite the severity of the terrorism threat, the US has a moral obligation to treat prisoners humanely. By lowering its standards, it lowers them for the world, and it's still paying the price for that in world opinion (most important, in Muslim opinion).

The administration should heed voices within its own ranks that want to prohibit "cruel," "humiliating," and "degrading" treatment in new Pentagon interrogation standards. And the House should get on with McCain's amendment and pass it - with the president's signature. Not only that, Congress should push ahead with a long-talked-about investigation of the CIA's covert sites. It's time to end the debate about prisoner treatment.

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