to this silence came to a boil a fortnight ago at a White House
briefing at which Scott McClellan, the press chief, took on the
matter of torture.
here, by way of perspective, to remind ourselves that the Geneva
Protocols to which the United States subscribed back in 1949 were
something of a casualty of Sept. 11. The president said then that
terrorists do not fall neatly into the category of enemy combatants,
for whom the Geneva codes were written. That dictum was widely
accepted as mere common sense -- the terrorist caught placing
a bomb in a New York skyscraper is different from the soldier
across the line with a rifle or a tank.
But it is
not specified in language available to the public just what the
singularities are. President Bush has said that the Geneva principles
continue to govern U.S. behavior in dealing with detainees. Sen.
Jay Rockefeller has asked for a congressional investigation, and
Sen. John McCain wants a new law that would specifically and unequivocally
govern the conduct of our military. ... Our military? Does that
include the CIA?
are being asked, and press chief McClellan attempted to pre-empt
a parsing of them by saying, "I think the president's made
our position very clear. We do not condone torture, nor would
he ever authorize the use of torture. We have an obligation to
abide by our laws and our treaty obligations, and that's what
we do. That is our policy."
wanted to know how the president would react to the proposed legislation.
"Does the administration want the CIA exempted from that
"We've stated our views on that amendment. The House passed
a different version of the Department of Defense spending legislation.
The Senate included some language on that. We'll be working with
congressional leaders as they move forward to pass that legislation."
"I don't get it. Is that a yes or a no?"
not going to get into discussions that we're having with congressional
leaders about how to move forward on that legislation."
already said the president is going to veto anything that would
exempt us from torture. You have -- this White House demeans --"
demean all Americans when you support torture. And your answer
is so fuzzy. First --"
answer is very clear. And that's flat-out wrong, what you're suggesting,
because this president has made it very clear what our policy
And on we
go. Soon the questioner was asking for hemidemisemiquavers of
distinction. OK, the president doesn't condone torture. "But
does he allow it?"
are complicated by contextual questions. The Geneva paradigm prohibits
treatment that is cruel, humiliating or degrading. A member of
the Taliban who has been for two years at Guantanamo can persuasively
plead that he has been degraded, humiliated and subjected to cruelty.
The kind of objectivity possible in congressional hearing rooms
and salons of justice in Geneva is not reached in the murk of
terrorist warfare. Rules governing conduct in espionage and counterterrorist
activity are not readily enunciated.
No one has
the right to preach to Senator McCain on the subject, inasmuch
as he is one of the providential survivors of torture in its most
elaborated forms. What the administration appears to be resisting
is endorsement of legislation that suffers from inbuilt rigidities
that preclude the realities. Does the CIA require, for the success
of its operations, a greater license than the military? Have we
thought through the implications of anti-terrorist activity? If
not, is Guantanamo a fetid creature of that confusion?
has access to very bright and thoughtful civil servants, but they
cannot shield the administration from the consequences of failing
to think through the dilemmas it is in.