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Most of us have had the experience of being haunted by a great film, book, or play, one that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater or closed the cover. It is rare, however, for a newspaper article to produce that chilling effect. But in the week following the New York Times Oct. 4 story detailing how the Bush administration rebuilt legal authorization for “enhanced interrogation” of terrorism suspects in 2005, I could not shake the story. At this late juncture, anyone who has followed the administration’s convoluted justifications for everything from warrantless wiretapping to the invasion of Iraq should be difficult to shock. But all the same, the article was shocking. In part that was because, when it came to the torture of terrorism suspects — check that: “enhanced interrogation” — it seemed as if the administration had backed off its most extreme positions. Following the depravations at Abu Ghraib prison, there was a sense that, in fighting a shadow enemy, our moral compass had gone awry. We seemed to regain our footing, and a consensus emerged that we needed to reassert some basic principles when it came to the treatment of those in our custody. In 2005, Congress passed a law banning “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled the Geneva Conventions applied to al-Qaida suspects as well as to uniformed soldiers we capture. Significantly, it was revealed that even within the administration, Justice Department lawyers had drawn the line on sanctioning the abusive interrogation of suspected terrorists. It seemed that the administration had finally gotten the message: The issue wasn’t a legalistic one of whether and to what extent a given law or treaty applied to captured suspects. The question was a moral one involving what we stand for as a nation. The answer from most quarters was clear: We don’t sanction torture. This isn’t who we are. But as the Times story made clear, it is who we are, at least as far as the Bush administration is concerned. Shortly after Alberto Gonzales took the helm as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department reversed course on abusive interrogations, secretly endorsing, as the Times put it, “the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.” This while Justice publicly declared that torture was “abhorrent.” Simulated drowning does not amount to torture, according to Justice. It’s hard to pick the most depressing passage in the 4,200-word article, but one nominee would be the revelation that, because American operatives were neophytes in the dark arts, the CIA was forced to call in some out-of-town experts, “consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.” Among the techniques we reportedly lifted from our new role models was keeping prisoners naked in frigid cells where they were regularly doused with cold water, binding them in “stress positions” for hours or days at a time, and using waterboarding, a quaint procedure where a prisoner is strapped down to an inclined board while cellophane is wrapped around his head and water is poured over him to simulate drowning. According to an ABC News investigation, the terror induced by this technique is so powerful that CIA officers who underwent waterboarding “lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.” The questions raised by our adoption of these techniques is basically two-fold: Does it work? And is it right? On the first point the evidence is mixed. It certainly breaks prisoners down, but it also produces a lot of junk information given in an effort to get the “enhanced interrogators” to stop what they’re doing. On the second question, it’s clear that the Bush administration has few moral qualms. Vice President Dick Cheney famously termed waterboarding a “no-brainer” if it saved American lives. The administration claims it has proof waterboarding has saved lives but, of course, has declined to disclose the proof — or address whether other techniques could yield the same information. Apparently lost on Cheney and others is the strategic price we pay for losing our moral standing in the world. America’s greatest asset is its message, not its might. What message does it send when we strap prisoners to boards and wrap cellophane around their heads? Simple: We have been terrorized.
Douglas McCollam is senior editor at Legal Times . He can be contacted at [email protected].

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