Tortured logic, tortured result
Miami Herald
Miami Herald Editoral
October 8, 2007

Critics cheered when the Bush administration did an about-face and disavowed torture as a government-sanctioned policy. In 2004, the Justice Department repudiated the infamous torture memos written after 9/11, and the president earnestly declared: "The United States does not torture." Mr. Bush even signed a bill whose authors believed would outlaw torture. It turns out, however, that there was nothing to cheer about.

Clever semantics

Reports now indicate that while the administration was paying lip service to the idea of abiding by anti-torture statutes, it was doing something else behind the scenes. First, it jettisoned officials in the Department of Justice who didn't agree with it. Then the administration welcomed a new lawyer to head the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven G. Bradbury, who was happy to comply with the wishes of his superiors. Under the tenure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Mr. Bradbury wrote two new secret memos that gave superiors what they wanted -- a way around the law.

It came down to clever semantics and a predisposition to ignore congressional restrictions on executive power. The 2005 Detainee Treatment Act championed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., outlawed "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of prisoners in U.S. custody anywhere in the world.

Never mind, said Mr. Bradbury. His opinion explicitly condoned some of the harshest tactics that the CIA used -- including waterboarding, head-slapping, frigid temperatures and "combined effects" using several practices simultaneously. His rationale reached back to a Supreme Court finding that only conduct that "shocks the conscience" is unconstitutional.

We guess it all depends on whose conscience we are talking about. Clearly, for some members of the administration like Vice President Cheney, hardly any tactic is beyond approval if it might elicit information from detainees. Earlier this year, the vice president said dunking prisoners in water is a "no-brainer."

'Signing statements'

The administration says that torture pits the rights of suspected terrorists against the right of the public to be safe and secure. It's not that easy. Whether we torture is about what kind of nation we aspire to be, and whether we are willing to abide by internationally recognized standards of civilized behavior.

Congress rightly has opted for the higher standard, but to no avail. Given the president's penchant for "signing statements" that undermine the very laws he signs, this is not the first time he has appeared to thwart the will of Congress. After six years of this type of behavior, such acts of bad faith still shock the conscience.

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