A nice op-ed on the Bush Executive Order regarding torture.
Once upon a time, a U.S. official's condemnation of torture was a statement of moral principle. Today, it is an opportunity for obfuscation. We have learned that when President Bush says, "We don't torture," it's important to read the fine print. So it was once again on July 20, when Bush issued a long-awaited executive order purporting to regulate interrogation tactics used by the CIA in the "war on terror." According to a White House press release, the order provides "clear rules" to implement the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of detainees in wartime -- rules the administration insisted did not even apply to the "war on terror" until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise last summer. But while the new rules reflect a significant retreat by the administration from its initial torture policies, they are anything but "clear," come far too late in the day, and in any event are unenforceable.
But how much of a step the administration has really taken remains a serious question. The actual tactics the CIA is authorized to use remain classified, based on the bogus claim that agency interrogators need to keep detainees guessing about how far they can go in order to interrogate effectively. The Army, by contrast, has set forth for the world to see the specific tactics its interrogators can employ -- in the Army Field Manual. And of course, it is black-letter law that no use or threat of physical force is permissible for state and federal police interrogations. Yet both the Army and domestic police obtain useful information from interrogations every day. The limits do not need to be secret for interrogation to be effective.
While the executive order flatly forbids torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, its failure to specify permissible and impermissible techniques seems designed to leave the CIA wiggle room. A prohibition on "acts of violence," for example, applies only to those violent acts "serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment," as defined by the Military Commissions Act. The MCA, in turn, limits "cruel and inhuman treatment" to the infliction of bodily injury that entails: "(i) a substantial risk of death; (ii) extreme physical pain; (iii) a burn or physical disfigurement of a serious nature (other than cuts, abrasions, or bruises); or (iv) significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty." In other words, the president's order appears to permit cutting or bruising a suspect so long as the injury does not risk death, significant functional impairment or "extreme physical pain," an entirely subjective term.
With a different administration and a different history, one might be less inclined to read President Bush's latest executive order so skeptically. But this administration has shown repeatedly that it approaches the prohibitions on coercive interrogation the way a particularly creative tax lawyer might treat the tax code. Instead of striving to uphold what we thought were our country's moral principles, the Bush administration seeks to exploit every loophole it can find or manufacture. As a result, the administration has lost the trust of the nation and of the rest of the world. Executive orders like this one are not likely to win it back.