Outside editorial: Politicians should eschew obfuscation

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2007

There used to be a bumper sticker that read "Eschew obfuscation," popular among ironist English majors and baffling to anyone else who didn't have a dictionary at hand. In essence, it means, "avoid murky communication."

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But in Washington, where obfuscation is a way of life, you can't get far by eschewing it. Consider two stories at the top of today's national news budget:

• President George W. Bush's nomination of Judge Michael B. Mukasey to be attorney general is in trouble because the nominee refuses to say whether he regards the interrogation technique known as waterboarding to be torture. During confirmation hearings two weeks ago, he said, "If waterboarding is torture ... torture is not constitutional." Later, he said that while he personally finds waterboarding to be "over the line" and "repugnant," he could not say whether it is torture and, thus, illegal, until he gets further briefings.

• Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, thefrontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has become a walking Waffle House. In debates last week, she obfuscated on issues ranging from her support for a resolution classifying the Iranian Republican Guard as a terrorist organization to Social Security reform to whether she supports New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.

Certainly there are different orders of magnitude here. Clinton should be willing to give straight answers, but her political career has been based on trying to make as many people as possible believe that she agrees with them. This is business as usual, except that she's so transparent about it.

But he who would be the nation's top law enforcement officer should be willing to say clearly whether he is convinced that waterboarding, used as an interrogation method as far back as the Spanish Inquisition, meets the definition of torture. Before Bush redefined torture down to treatment that "shocks the conscience," waterboarding certainly met the existing standards set out in U.S. and international law.

(Try this experiment at home: Stand in the shower with a wet washcloth over your eyes, nose and mouth. Let the water pound your face continuously and try to breathe. See how long it takes you to panic. Now imagine a similar situation, except that you're lashed to a board - your feet higher than your head, your arms bound - and surrounded by thugs in a dank cell in a foreign country.)

Mukasey has a much better to reason to obfuscate than most politicians. If he answers "yes" to the waterboarding-as-torture question, it could expose CIA interrogators who used it and the government officials who authorized it to prosecution under international law. On Monday, for example, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fled a meeting in Paris after becoming alarmed that French officials might seek to detain him for possible questioning about his role in "war crimes."

"The facts are that an expression of opinion by Judge Mukasey prior to becoming attorney general would put a lot of people at risk for what has happened," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Wednesday. That's a false argument. It doesn't matter whether he expresses such an opinion before or after becoming attorney general; it's the opinion that could be problematic.

We hold no brief for waterboarding, or for Rumsfeld, Bush or any of the other U.S. officials who, in an excess of zeal and with an arrogance born of ideology, trampled international law. Our concern is for front-line CIA or military interrogators who, believing they were operating under legitimate legal authority, may have gone over the line. As we saw in the investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, it is people at the bottom who get hung out to dry.

Mukasey is not our idea of the perfect candidate for attorney general, but he is a man of demonstrated intellect and integrity. Whatever his tortured language, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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