WASHINGTON—Let's go over this one more time: The issue of torturing prisoners or subjecting them to degrading, inhumane treatment is not about them and what horrible, murderous individuals they are. It's about us as Americans and who we are and what we stand for in this troubled world.
Those are the words of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former prisoner of war who bears the scars of his own torture at the hands of his communist North Vietnamese captors. He spoke from the heart, and he is right. It is just that simple. We do not do torture.
We have tried through the years to be a steady beacon and a shining example for the oppressed—a country that defends and campaigns for human rights. We have not always lived up to our ideals as, in the name of expediency or convenience, we did business with this dictator or that despot, some of them even more loathsome than Saddam Hussein. Or with Saddam himself when once upon a time it suited us.
Now it appears that we are behaving no better than those we have denounced in our principled demands that all governments respect the basic rights of their citizens. This should be a cause for great shame in an administration that invaded Iraq and after a year of dithering decided our purpose in doing so was to free the Iraqi people and establish Jeffersonian democracy in that blood-stained land.
A recent news report that the Central Intelligence Agency has been stashing high-value al-Qaeda prisoners in secret jails in Eastern Europe, jails built by and once operated by the Soviet KGB, only intensifies the debate and the need to tell the world that we do not torture prisoners.
The first reaction on Capitol Hill was to call for an investigation of how the information on those secret prisons leaked to the press—when instead the lawmakers should be demanding an investigation of precisely how this American gulag was created and on whose orders.
What are we doing creating a prison system into which a prisoner disappears, perhaps for life, with no trial, no conviction, no legal protection, no nothing? And no one will ever know he is in there or his name.
Once we begin doing this to foreigners, how long until we are willing to do it to American citizens? When do we start suspending habeas corpus and all those other protections for individual Americans in the name of some greater need, as determined by political leaders?
Under the Patriot Act the Federal Bureau of Investigation now has the power to issue a secret letter demanding the phone, banking, e-mail and library records of anyone it has an interest in—and the FBI is now using that power at an unprecedented rate. The people who hand over the records are forbidden to reveal the fact; the people whose records are seized and scrutinized may never know it happened.
When a president and his men should be cleaning up that mess and the CIA prison mess and the messes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and laying down the law and the rules, instead we are treated to the spectacle of Vice President Dick Cheney—fully supported by his boss, President Bush—lobbying Congress to defeat a principled piece of legislation approved 90-9 by the Senate that would outlaw torture and degrading treatment and require all agencies to abide by strict rules on the treatment of detainees as laid down in the U.S. Army field manual on handling and interrogating detainees.
We have an administration talking out of both sides of its mouth, wanting to have it both ways. One side trumpets declarations that we Americans abide by the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners while the other side whispers that it is OK to do "hard interrogations" inside those secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
Over on Capitol Hill the senators and congressmen, or rather their leaders, are divided against each other. The Senate wants the language McCain has inserted in two defense bills written into law. The House leadership is preventing its own conferees from meeting to work it out with the Senate conferees, and House leader Dennis Hastert is determined to avoid any vote on the McCain amendment at all. The president vows to veto any bill that contains the simple language saying we don't do torture.
McCain says he is prepared to attach his amendment to every single bill that comes to the Senate floor for a vote—and it is now clear that a majority of his colleagues will vote his way.
He has been lobbied hard by Cheney, National Security Council officials and CIA officials. He has rebuffed all their arguments, and his argument is beginning to resonate within an administration dividing against itself.
The Defense Department, which has been a big part of the problem, has finally issued guidelines that all interrogations by the military shall be conducted humanely and "acts of physical or mental torture are prohibited."
It is time for some leadership, the right kind of leadership, out of the White House. We need a president to stand up and say the rules against torture are the rules, and no agency or individual is excepted. We need a president who understands we must live by our principles and once again stand for human rights.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young