Clash of visions over CIA interrogations
Can the broad terms of the Geneva Conventions be more clearly defined without weakening them?
At the center of the congressional debate over whether to authorize harsh interrogation tactics in the war on terror is a fundamental truism. Cruelty is an uncomfortable concept for most Americans.Skip to next paragraph
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How mean is too mean? When does harsh treatment become inhumane? When does a coercive interrogation cross the line and become degrading?
These aren't just difficult legal and ethical questions, they are a measure of US character and morality. That is the uniting point of a group of maverick Republican senators who object to rubber-stamping the White House effort to continue the controversial interrogation program by the Central Intelligence Agency.
White House officials are approaching the issue from a different perspective. How much dignity is due a man who would plant a bomb in a preschool or eagerly detonate a device that could level Washington, D.C.?
It is these competing conceptions that animate the current negotiations between Senate Republicans and the White House. The struggle is a reflection of something both disquieting and reassuring about America in 2006, analysts say.
"We are trying to follow our highest ideals," says John McGinnis, a professor at Northwestern University's law school. "If we go back to the Revolutionary War, George Washington treated his prisoners better than the British treated our prisoners. But there is this danger that the terrorists who don't follow our rules will try to use our system to destroy us."
Two weeks after President Bush publicly acknowledged the existence of secret CIA prisons overseas where harsh interrogation techniques were used against top Al Qaeda suspects, his administration is struggling to maintain legislative support to keep the program going.
A group of Republican senators led by John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John Warner of Virginia appears intent on forcing the administration to abide by the broad dictates of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
Common Article 3 establishes a base line of protections for anyone captured in a conflict. The Bush administration had decided that Common Article 3 did not apply in the war against Al Qaeda since the terror group does not honor the laws of war. But the Supreme Court ruled in June that it does apply.
Now Mr. Bush is trying – after the fact – to establish a legal foundation for a secret CIA program that has operated since 2002. The problem is that some of the wording in Common Article 3 leaves Americans who participated in the interrogations vulnerable to war-crimes charges.
In addition to torture, the common article bars "cruel treatment" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
"Such phrases standing alone mean different things to Americans," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters on Monday. "Think of the differences in interpretation that will exist between differing legal systems and cultures of the nations of the world."