A tortured stance on torture
By H.D.S. Greenway
Boston Globe
October 9, 2007

IN HALF a century of reporting around the world, I have found that
there was usually a feeling that the United States stood for standards
of liberty, human rights, and the dignity of mankind. The Bush
administration has taken us off that gold standard and drained away
much of that reservoir of respect. The horrors of Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo have eaten away at America's credibility and moral
standing, dismaying our friends and empowering our enemies.

Washington shuddered last week when The New York Times revealed that
the Justice Department, under the direction of Alberto Gonzales, had
undermined the will of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as
hard-won national and international standards with secret legal
opinions supporting torture. "Shocking" was the word Republican
Senator Arlen Specter used, and well he should.

Men and women of good will may differ on how much power the executive
branch should have, and how much of our privacy and civil liberties
need to be curtailed in an age of terrorism. As the former deputy
attorney general, James Comey, who tried to stem the tide of the
administration's malfeasance, said: there are "agonizing collisions"
between the law and the desire to protect Americans. But no good will
can be ascribed to those who secretly sought to undermine the republic
by their underhanded advocacy of torture.

Instead of entering into an honest debate, the administration spoke of
its "abhorrence" of torture while at the same time secretly promoting
it. Not surprisingly, the fine hand of Vice President Dick Cheney and
his counsel, David Addington, could be discerned. Despite his bluster,
President Bush, "the decider," has turned out to be a weak president,
riddled with insecurities masked by stubbornness, who has allowed his
subordinates to gnaw away at the Constitution.

Some lawmakers, notably Senator John McCain who knows a thing or two
about torture from his years as a prisoner in Hanoi, tried to halt the
moral rot. But the secret opinions of the Justice Department found
that the Detainee Treatment Act would not force any change in torture
practices, allowing for water-boarding and all the rest to continue.

Perhaps the most demoralizing revelation was that while the public
voice of America was urging democracy and openness on our allies Saudi
Arabia and Egypt, other Americans - with the blessing of the
administration - were going around to the cellar door to get briefed
on how best to torture prisoners. Even the interrogation methods of
the Soviet Union, which surely should have been discredited by now,
were brought into play.

Many who are familiar with interrogation say that the kind of violence
favored by the Bush administration is unnecessary and
counterproductive. The trouble with copying the Soviet Union's methods
is that, often as not, the Soviet interrogators were not after
reliable information. They just wanted confessions to things they knew
their prisoners had not done in order to justify a prisoner's eventual
execution for purely political reasons.

The trouble with torture is that a prisoner will say anything he
thinks you may want to hear. Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a planner of
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After being severely tortured he has
confessed to such a wide-ranging number of crimes as to be

The long-range problem with the Bush administration's efforts to
subvert national and international bans on torture is that it hurts us
deeply in the struggle against Islamic extremism. It revolts the
conscience of the world, which makes it harder for the West to
convince Muslims that we are not the enemy of Islam. It encourages
converts to Al Qaeda. It stays the hand of moderate Muslims who may
otherwise want to cooperate with us. It undermines our international
standing and our national security.

It was Comey, considered a wimp and disloyal by the administration for
trying to stand up against the use of torture, who said to his Justice
Department colleagues that they would be "ashamed" when the world
eventually learned of their actions.

"It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say 'no' when it matters
most," he said. "It takes moral character. It takes an understanding
that in the long run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable
intelligence in this country."

Alas, moral character was in short supply at a Justice Department
where the Bush administration could always find subordinates to
subvert the rule of law.