Saturday, May 21, 2005


BOTH INTERNATIONAL and US law are as clear about psychological torture of prisoners as they are about physical torture: Thou shalt not do it. Yet US documents and the International Committee of the Red Cross have detailed US use of mock executions, extended isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and sexual humiliation as ways to break down prisoners from the Afghan and Iraqi wars. This is in addition to physical abuse and the 26 deaths of detainees that the Army has classified as confirmed or suspected homicides. The New York Times yesterday drew on 2,000 pages of Army confidential files to describe the halting criminal investigations of two brutal killings of Afghan detainees.

The Bush administration should spell out to interrogators and guards that psychological torture, which can have devastating long-term effects, is beyond the pale. It should also disavow all the confusing memos and orders from officials that have authorized exceptions. It is in the oversight role of Congress to investigate why these abuses occurred, how to keep them from recurring, and who should be held accountable for them. If these practices are not stopped and if abusers are not punished, the United States will invite future mistreatment of US personnel when they are in enemies' hands.

A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights describing the abuse and the administration's equivocating response was eclipsed by the furor over Newsweek magazine's retraction of its report that a military document included an account of US troops flushing a Koran in a toilet. The magazine report ignited riots in Afghanistan in which at least 16 people died. Newsweek had based its report on a source who turned out not to be reliable. The magazine deserves criticism for this.

But the administration also deserves strong criticism for giving troops the impression that they need not adhere to the Geneva Conventions or to antitorture laws. The administration approach of loopholes and winks also ignores the strong wording of the Army's rulebook for interrogation, Field Manual 34-52, which not only states that psychological torture is illegal but that it is a ''poor technique, as it yields unreliable results."

In spite of this, just last month a draft that Physicians for Human Rights acquired of a new detainee operations doctrine states that rules of humane treatment can be set aside for ''military necessity" in the case of ''enemy combatants," the detainees often denied the more protected status of prisoners of war. But the international and US antitorture laws allow no such exemptions. Congress has an obligation to force the administration to abide by rules of prisoner treatment that do not break the law, blacken the nation's reputation, and jeopardize our own soldiers.

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