Tuesday, October 04, 2005

YOU KNOW THAT the issue of torture has beome really, really serious when Irving Kristol's The Weekly Standard publishes a piece by two staffers at the American Enterprise Institute calling for passage of legislation that would establish clear standards for the interrogation of detainees.

In opposing the legislation, the Pentagon argues that it is not Congress's place to be arbiter of the rules for treatment of detainees, insisting that it alone should wield that power. It also warns, as spokesman Lawrence DiRita put it in a recent op-ed in USA Today, that by establishing a clear standard for interrogations, the amendment would "hamper the country's ability to readily adapt and update interrogation methods from Al Qaeda detainees who we know are trained to resist known interrogation techniques."

NEITHER OF THESE ARGUMENTS ARE PERSUASIVE. First, as supporters of the bill have pointed out, the amendment would do nothing to stop the Defense Department from revising and updating the field manual however and whenever it sees fit. In fact, this is precisely what the Pentagon is already in the midst of doing, adding a new classified annex. Contrary to the E-Ring's dire predictions, the notion that congressional oversight will somehow help terrorists study up and adapt to new interrogation techniques is just wrong.

Second, and more broadly, the well-documented pattern of abuses from Afghanistan to Iraq reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the Pentagon's prized "ambiguity." Despite the unique challenges posed by the war on terror, the Congress--and Republican conservatives, in particular--should be skeptical when the executive branch says, in effect, "Just trust us." Although it's understandable that the Defense Department would like to act with the maximum freedom of action, it has created a Balkanized set of standards in which different rules apply in different places, which plainly does not work. If ever there were an appropriate object for congressional oversight, this is it.

The consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment of detainees are plain to see. Again, set aside the obvious impact of Abu Ghraib and consider the less-publicized deaths at Bagram, which created a dangerous irritant in U.S.-Afghan relations. President Karzai, for instance, spent his trip to the United States on the defensive, forced to justify why he was calling for a long-term strategic partnership with Washington--including long-term access by the U.S. military to Afghan bases--in light of the murder of Afghan citizens by American soldiers. We're not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us, but harder for our friends to love us.

Via Political Animal.

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