At times President Bush inspires a kind of awe. It is a rare individual who can repeat obvious falsehoods with so much tenacity and conviction that millions of listeners eventually mistake them for the truth.
The president was in top form on Monday, when he spoke at a news conference in Panama on the subject of torture. A few days earlier, the Washington Post had reported that the CIA is operating secret prisons in eastern Europe and Asia, where detainees have disappeared from view with no charges filed against them and no monitoring by the International Red Cross. Disturbing as it was, the Post report was only the latest of many indications that the abuse of detainees is tolerated and sometimes actively encouraged by the United States government.
When asked about the reports, Bush had this to say: “There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. So you can bet we will aggressively pursue them but we will do so under the law. … Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture.”
The remarks had an oddly paternalistic tone, as if Bush were lecturing a roomful of children on the dangers of wandering into dark alleys. But the real clincher was We do not torture. It can be interpreted in only one of three ways: The president was (1) lying, (2) clueless, or (3) working with his own private definition of “torture.”
We do not torture? The government already has documented hundreds of cases of abuse, torture and killing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration embarked on this course knowingly — arguing, through its lawyers, that the Geneva Convention does not apply to suspected terrorists. Prisoners have suffered beatings, hypothermia, near-drowning, and a dozen other forms of abuse. We do not torture? What would Bush call it?
And if the president rejects torture, why has he opposed a bill that makes explicit the very principle he pretends to uphold? U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has sponsored legislation that would outlaw the “cruel, inhumane or degrading” treatment of detainees held by the United States government. The measure, which cleared the Senate on a 90-9 vote, also would require the military to comply with interrogation techniques outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; he speaks with unique authority when rebutting the argument that this country is entitled to torture prisoners because its enemies do. As McCain tells it, American POWs “knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment of them.”
The administration’s response? Bush, who hasn’t vetoed a bill in nearly five years as president, says he’ll veto any measure (including, if necessary, the entire defense appropriations bill) that includes the McCain proposal. Vice President Dick Cheney is working actively for language that would allow the CIA to abuse prisoners it holds overseas. And in response to the Washington Post story about CIA secret prisons, Republican leaders in Congress announced Tuesday that they intend to get to the bottom of this outrage — not the prisons, but the leaks that held them up to public view.
This administration has condoned and sometimes encouraged the cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees. A president who excuses this policy, denies it or conceals it from public view is assaulting this country’s basic values in the name of preserving them.