Interrogating Torture Rules

On Thursday, the public will get a peek inside the Bush administration's long and secretive interagency debate over what constitutes torture of terror-related detainees, and whether torture during interrogations should even be allowed.

The occasion is the Senate hearing for the nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. Mr. Gonzales was a lead architect of the post-9/11 legal doctrine on defining torture in order to avoid using it.

Mr. Bush clearly stated in February 2002 that US interrogators should not use torture. For that much, he should be praised. In 1994, the US ratified an antitorture treaty, certifying its renunciation of torture, a decision that should also help protect US soldiers and agents from torture themselves.

But the Senate needs to probe Gonzales on some points.

Why, for instance, did the administration wait until a week before this hearing to correct the mistakes of an August 2002 memo on torture? Was it timed for this hearing?

But more important: Does the administration really endorse the idea that any president, as commander in chief, has the discretion to allow torture in extreme circumstances?

And why is the White House so reluctant to draw up a long list of specific rules on the types of treatment of detainees that are banned?

Does Gonzales take any responsibility for the many reports of abuse and torture of detainees because of the administration's vague and ambivalent attitude on torture and the Geneva Conventions?

To its credit, the administration's 17-page memo issued last week as legal guidance for interrogators does broaden the definition of torture so that it becomes less likely. The 2002 memo tried to argue that torture is committed only when "excruciating and agonizing pain" is inflicted on detainees. Now the threshold for defining the severity of pain is lower.

Americans need to know clearly that their government abhors and abstains from the use of torture.

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