We've sunk to Osama's level

The torture of prisoners is not only illegal under American and international law it is, put simply, immoral and unjust. It is also un-American.

It is amazing that we are still hung up in a debate over President Bush's insistence that we bend and break our laws and the Geneva Conventions so that our agents can do everything short of murder to make a man talk.

The president's bill—blocked in the Senate by three Republicans who know war and know the law and know what's right—would allow Central Intelligence Agency operatives to subject prisoners to water-boarding, or near-death by drowning; to being forced to stand for 40 hours at a time; to sleep deprivation; to being tossed naked into a freezing cold cell for days at a time.

Sleep deprivation was a favorite of the Soviet KGB. They knew that after three or four days their victim would be hallucinating, shivering and shaking, weakened to the point where he would admit anything just for the hope of half an hour of sleep.

I saw water-boarding long ago in Vietnam. A half-naked young man, suspected of being a local Viet Cong guerrilla, was handed over by his American captors to South Vietnamese troops.

Four of them held him down. An old, dirty rag was coiled around his face covering his nose and mouth. A fifth held a five-gallon tin of water slowly pouring it into the coiled rag.

The water took the place of air for that prisoner. His chest heaved violently as he sought the air and took in only water. I turned away before I could see whether he talked or drowned. An American captain shrugged; it was a Vietnamese thing.

There were other field expedient tortures in Vietnam, including the infamous telephone generator, where wires were clamped on genitals and the handle cranked at increasing speeds, and wattage, as the victim screamed and bucked.

Those abominations existed in Vietnam, but they were not carried out by Americans. There was a line that was never to be crossed. It was a line between barbarity and civilization. It was a line between them and us.

From the beginning of this war on terrorism our president and his counsel, now our attorney general, insisted that those we captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere were not prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention; were not entitled to the meager protections of that international treaty; were not entitled to any of the legal protections of our own justice system; and could be subjected to the tortures discussed above.

The reaction was slow to come. It was only last year that Sens. John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham overcame White House objections and passed a law barring cruel and inhumane interrogation methods.

Then the Supreme Court threw out the president's plan to try the captives before drumhead military tribunals and impose sentences including death without benefit of their seeing the evidence against them; without benefit of appeal; without any of the legal protections accorded American citizens.

The fact that the CIA maintained secret prisons in countries around the world where even more draconian tortures presumably were put in practice— where prisoners were held incognito with no rights, no names and no hope—became known.

Then the panic set in.

If all these illegalities, if all this immoral and un-American conduct, were not set right and somehow made legal in some hasty legislation, then it would not only be the agents who poured the water and beat the prisoners who someday might face war crimes charges, it could also be those who bent and broke the laws and the treaties.

Thus we are treated to the spectacle of a president declaring that if Congress did not pass the law he wanted, allowing the torture of prisoners, then we would cease interrogating prisoners in the war on terrorism.

When the three Republican senators craft their own bill on this subject, their own GOP leadership vows to filibuster and block the bill during the last nine working days of a do-little Congress eager to adjourn so that its members can go try to explain their behavior to the voters.

The White House, easing off from the president's my-way-or-the-highway stance, now says it wants to negotiate some middle ground.

What's the middle ground on torture? No water boarding or work on the fingernails allowed but sleep deprivation and the ice-box and minor beating around the head and ears are just fine?

We once stood for something good in this world. We once took the high moral ground in our struggle with the evil that exists. We once upheld the Geneva Conventions not only because we expected our enemies to apply them in their treatment of American prisoners but because they were the law, and they were right.

Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda boys hiding in their caves in Waziristan are surely laughing over all of this. They have succeeded in dragging us down to their level of barbarity and inhumanity.



Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: jlgalloway2@cs.com