Features

'I have never ordered torture'

Washington | WASHINGTON: White House release of memos on prisoner treatment supports the president, but the debate is politically painful

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

Memo to President Bush: Public debate over the use of torture may not be good for one's political health. After weeks of resistance, the White House on June 22 released hundreds of pages of documents detailing years of internal wrangling over how to treat prisoners in the War on Terror. In a flurry of memos among the Pentagon, Justice Department, and White House-some dating back to late 2001-top administration officials scoured the law and searched their souls for a legal and moral definition of torture. The final guidelines appear fairly benign, but some much harsher tactics were approved and then rejected along the way. That has critics, both left and right, worried about America's moral standing in the world, international support for the war, and the treatment of American soldiers who fall into enemy hands. On strictly logical terms, few could argue with the president's February 2002 memo calling for "new thinking in the law of war." Stateless terrorist groups like al-Qaeda were not parties to the Geneva Convention, Mr. Bush noted, and thus were not covered by international laws protecting prisoners of war. Nonetheless, the president ordered, the U.S. military would "treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment." But what would constitute "humane" treatment? Officials were still wrestling with that question six months after the presidential directive. "Cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" would not be a crime, argued Assistant Attorney Gen. Jay Bybee in a memo dated Aug. 1, 2002. In order to rise to a strict definition of illegal torture, "Physical pain . . . must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure." For much of the next two months, military officials and government lawyers debated a list of acceptable interrogation techniques. "Exposure to cold weather or water is permissible with appropriate medical monitoring," read an October memo prepared by a task force at Guantanamo Bay, where Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees were being held. "The use of a wet towel to induce the misperception of suffocation would also be permissible." Armed with such arguments, a Pentagon policy memo dated Nov. 27, 2002, allowed a wide range of interrogation techniques, including stripping prisoners of their clothes, intimidating them with dogs, questioning them for 20 hours at a stretch, and forcing them to wear hoods. When the memo noted that prisoners could be forced to stand for up to 4 hours at a time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scrawled in the margin, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?" Despite his initial hard line, Mr. Rumsfeld-without explanation-backed off two months later. Final guidelines touted by the White House prohibited techniques such as nakedness and dogs, and even relatively innocuous techniques such as solitary confinement and verbal insults required personal authorization from the Secretary of Defense. Still, critics contend, the guidelines spelled out on April 16, 2003, applied only to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, offering no protections to detainees in other facilities, including the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The administration still won't reveal its more widely permitted interrogation techniques, because doing so would allow future detainees to prepare in advance against their questioners. Though the wholesale document release was meant to quiet critics, questions are sure to linger. Some military experts worry that by rationalizing away the Geneva Convention, the Bush administration has encouraged mistreatment of U.S. soldiers who fall into enemy hands. Likewise, the high-level hair-splitting over the definition of torture may hurt the president's cherished reputation for ethics and morality. Already, polls show, Americans are evenly split on the question of which presidential candidate shares their values. A very public debate over smothering prisoners with wet towels can hardly help Mr. Bush's numbers. "I have never ordered torture," the president insisted on the day the documents were released, and nothing seems to contradict that claim. But in politics-as in interrogations-perception is everything. Open societies vs. closed ones With international attention focused on alleged torture by U.S. troops, China quietly canceled a United Nations fact-finding mission intended to substantiate claims of torture in the world's most populous country. After a decade of resistance, Beijing had finally agreed to a late-June visit by Theo van Boven, a UN expert who compiled a report citing the Chinese in 130 torture cases. Just days before his departure, however, Chinese officials changed their minds. Maybe later in the year, they said. Mr. Van Boven's terror dossier was chilling. A typical entry: "Luo Xiaoyu was reportedly detained in the summer of 2000 . . . frequently beaten with spiked clubs by guards . . . her body was reportedly swollen, her buttocks torn and bleeding and pus kept running down her legs." Ms. Luo is a member of Falun Gong, an outlawed sect that borrows heavily from Buddhism. Authorities have also begun cracking down on one of China's largest Protestant house churches. On April 17, gunmen in a police car kidnapped its founder, Xu Shuangfu, and are reportedly holding him for ransom. Nine days later about 90 of Mr. Xu's fellow believers were arrested. Police reportedly tortured and beat to death Gu Xianggao, a 28-year-old among them. Despite its own brewing torture scandal, the United States can still exert pressure to stop such abuses, says Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. "We can say, 'Look, our record isn't perfect either. But the way you handle this when you have abuse is by allowing an open press to investigate, having hearings and [instituting] court proceedings.' "This is the way an open, responsible society works. We don't deny it, we don't cover it up, and we don't promote the people responsible."

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