"High Noon" over Torture

President Bush's veto of the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act has very little to do with Al Qaeda or even torture and everything to do with November 4th.

Bush's "High Noon" Strategy. Time after time the president has forced showdowns with the Democrats over seemingly esoteric or tangential matters touching on national security. Once the battle is engaged, the Bush administration begins a drumbeat of "we're for protecting America, they're not," leaving the ambushed Democrats to attempt to debate the minutia of the issue over the din of the administration's demagoguery. In the process, the Republican base is energized, the Democrats are bloodied on national security and their base enraged to the extent they yield to the president.

We first saw this in 2002 when Bush drew a line in the sand over union rights under the proposed Department of Homeland Security and most recently last month over telecom immunity under the FISA reform bill. This time, the President is returning to familiar ground -- torture.

Politicizing Torture - Act I. The use of cruel, inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment or punishment is not only prohibited by the War Crimes Act of 1996 as well as the Geneva Convention, the Torture Convention and other treaties, but even President Bush declared that it was against U.S. policy to use "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" in signing the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. The Bush administration also has condemned countries such as North Korea for "acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" that included water-boarding.

Yet as the 2006 elections approached, Bush suddenly found the term "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" to be "so vague that it's impossible" to continue the CIA interrogation program. This forced another "High Noon" confrontation with the Democrats as Bush sought and won language narrowing the scope of the War Crimes Act's torture provisions.

Politicizing Torture - Act II. The current debate is over whether or not CIA interrogators should follow the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations. Section 2-23 [PDF] prohibits "acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation."

The president should read the manual since it also explains that "use of torture by U.S. personnel would bring discredit upon the U.S. and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort. It also could place U.S. and allied personnel in enemy hands at a greater risk of abuse by their captors." This view is reinforced by a 2006 Army War College report that torture is always "a major strategic blunder . . . [especially] in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare [where] the moral component of the fight is strategically decisive."

"It has always been recognized that . . . interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile." This was the conclusion of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and was confirmed in 2005 by the head of Army Intelligence who explained that "[n]o good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. . . . I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that."

Despite this, President Bush would have you believe that water-boarding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed prevented a 9/11 style attack on Los Angeles. But a senior FBI official had labeled this claim as "just ludicrous" since the plot was never acted upon and discovered only after the fact. Yet the Deacon of Deception wants us to blindly trust him that water-boarding and other means of torture are protecting American lives.

A Better Nation. Over a century ago, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt dismissed a general for engaging in water-boarding in the Philippines, explaining that no mater the provocation, "nothing can justify . . . the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army." Roosevelt's decision was widely praised by both parties for "uphold[ing] the national honor."

Sadly that is not the case today, since for President Bush and John McCain partisan politics matters more than our national honor. McCain, who had previously stated that this question "has nothing to do with al Qaeda, [but] it has everything to do with America" and only a few months ago stated unequivocally that "water-boarding is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned [because we] are a better nation than that," has shifted his Sellout Express into high gear now that he is the presumptive nominee and embraced the President's veto.

While the Democrats will be unable to overturn the president's veto, Bush and the Republicans may not fare as well in their final "High Noon" showdown on November 4th. That is the day the voters will have the opportunity to prove that we truly are "a better nation than that."

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