Who Isn't Against Torture?

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 10, 2005

Some people get it. Some don't.

Senator John McCain, one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq, has sponsored a legislative amendment that would prohibit the "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of prisoners in the custody of the U.S. military. Last week the Senate approved the amendment by the overwhelming vote of 90 to 9.

This was not a matter of Democrats vs. Republicans, or left against right. Joining Senator McCain in his push for clear and unequivocal language banning the abusive treatment of prisoners were Senator John Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former military lawyer who is also a Republican and an influential member of the committee. Both are hawks on the war.

Also lining up in support were more than two dozen retired senior military officers, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili.

So who would you expect to remain out of step with this important march toward sanity, the rule of law and the continuation of a longstanding American commitment to humane values?

Did you say President Bush? Well, that would be correct.

The president, who has trouble getting anything right, is trying to block this effort to outlaw the abusive treatment of prisoners.

Senator McCain's proposal is an amendment to the huge defense authorization bill. The White House has sent out signals that Mr. Bush might veto the entire bill if that's what it takes to defeat the amendment.

The Washington Post summed the matter up in an editorial that said:

"Let's be clear: Mr. Bush is proposing to use the first veto of his presidency on a defense bill needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan so that he can preserve the prerogative to subject detainees to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In effect, he threatens to declare to the world his administration's moral bankruptcy."

Last Wednesday, Senator McCain rose on the Senate floor and said:

"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states simply that 'No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a signatory, states the same. The binding Convention Against Torture, negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the Senate, prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

"On last year's [Department of Defense] authorization bill, the Senate passed a bipartisan amendment reaffirming that no detainee in U.S. custody can be subject to torture or cruel treatment, as the U.S. has long defined those terms. All of this seems to be common sense, in accordance with longstanding American values.

"But since last year's [defense] bill, a strange legal determination was made that the prohibition in the Convention Against Torture against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners held outside the U.S. They can, apparently, be treated inhumanely. This is the [Bush] administration's position, even though Judge Abe Sofaer, who negotiated the Convention Against Torture for President Reagan, said in a recent letter that the Reagan administration never intended the prohibition against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment to apply only on U.S. soil."

The McCain amendment would end the confusion and the perverse hunt for loopholes in the laws that could somehow be interpreted as allowing the sadistic treatment of human beings in U.S. custody.

Senator McCain met last week with Capt. Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate who was one of three former members of the 82nd Airborne Division to come forward with allegations, first publicly disclosed in a report by Human Rights Watch, that members of their battalion had routinely beaten and otherwise abused prisoners in Iraq. In a letter that he sent to the senator before the meeting, Captain Fishback wrote:

"Some argue that since our actions are not as horrifying as Al Qaeda's, we should not be concerned. When did Al Qaeda become any type of standard by which we measure the morality of the United States? We are America, and our actions should be held to a higher standard, the ideals expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."

Senator McCain and Captain Fishback get it. Some people still don't.