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"We do not torture," President Bush says. Yet that oft-repeated assurance has been followed by an unspoken "but" in reference to interrogation of suspected terrorists by the CIA. Last week, that troubling "but" was translated into an executive order that, while forswearing torture, allows the intelligence agency to use "enhanced" interrogation methods off-limits to the U.S. military.
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CIA Director Michael V. Hayden says that under the new order, "our mission and authorities are clearly defined." But not to the public, which is left to puzzle over how an "enhanced" technique can be so vital as to justify a departure from standards imposed on military interrogators and yet not so aggressive as to raise concerns about torture. It's not surprising that both critics and supporters of the order seem to assume that the CIA will be skirting the ban on torture.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, points to the qualifiers and ambiguities in the order's prohibition on "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliation or degrading the individuals in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency." Cole correctly concludes: "Whatever else one might say, these are hardly 'clear rules.'"
They're clear enough for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who said in Iowa that, while he was against torture, "I support tough interrogation techniques, enhanced interrogation techniques, in circumstances where there is a ticking time bomb." But Romney must know that the "ticking time bomb" is the scenario of choice for those who argue that in some circumstances torture might be permissible to serve the greater good.
The Senate Intelligence Committee in a recent report raised questions about whether special interrogation rules for the CIA were "necessary, lawful and in the best interests of the United States." If Bush's executive order doesn't calm those doubts, Congress should say so - and insist on a single standard for interrogation that will remove the "but" from "we do not torture."