President Bush tried to put as good a face on it as possible, but his decision to support an amendment by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to ban torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment at U.S. prison camps was a defeat for him. It came after months of administration resistance to the measure and only after both the House and the Senate, by veto-proof margins, passed resolutions favoring it.
The administration should not view this defeat as an embarrassment, however, but as a welcome opportunity to correct a course that had been embarrassing to the administration and to the United States itself. This administration’s flirtation with finding legalistic defenses for stepping right up to and beyond authorizing interrogators to use torture tactics has done a great deal to undermine U.S. credibility as a proponent of the rule of law and a defender of civilized behavior against the terrorists who have chosen to make us their enemy.
A number of commentators and a few administration officials seem to have become accepting of the idea of torture or “coercive interrogation” as a legitimate tool in the “war on terror.” The usual procedure is to pose an unlikely what-if: What if you knew an attack was imminent within hours, and you knew the guy in custody could give you information that could save thousands of lives. Wouldn’t you use torture?
One problem with that scenario is that torture seldom elicits reliable information. The first impulse of somebody being tortured is to blurt out what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. This is seldom the truth or any part of it.
The problem was highlighted recently by news that a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida was based on statements made by a prisoner, Ibn-al-Shaykh al-Libi, when he was in Egyptian custody and subject to coercive interrogation if not outright torture. He later recanted, and later still the CIA decided the statements were false. But the administration had used them in making its case for war. The fact that the claims were false undermined administration credibility and is part of the reason two-thirds of Americans now believe the Iraq war was a mistake.
Relying on the results of coercive interrogation, in short, led to a setback in the war against al-Qaida and a political setback for the administration.
Abandoning civilized values would make an apparent victory against terror hollow. The McCain amendment is a small step toward avoiding such a “catastrophic victory.”