The president is seeking clarification from the US congress on what is and what is not permissible. This is important to do to maintain legal support for our effort on the war on terror. Whatever is decided, it should not be less permissible than what we could do to arrested criminals.
Whatever policy we adopt will in no way increase or decrease the chances of our captured soldiers from being tortured. We cannot dictate the actions of our enemies. And we cannot hold them accountable. What Geneva Convention signatory nation have been fined or punished for torture? And what of non-signatories like terrorist organization? Will they care that we treat their prisoners nicely and thus not behead ours?
And what are the consequences of an overly strict policy regarding interrogation? Consider this perspective from the WSJ:
Opponents of interrogating al Qaeda detainees keep slandering the Bush Administration by equating all aggressive questioning techniques with "torture." What's more, they seem unable to draw the obvious lessons from our experience handling terror suspects thus far.
Take the case of Maher Arar, an apparently innocent Canadian citizen who was arrested at JFK airport in September 2002 and turned over to Syria -- a process known as "rendition" -- where he actually appears to have been tortured. According to some of our media colleagues, this shows that CIA officials can't be trusted with the authority they're seeking under the proposed new Detainee Act to use a number of "stress techniques" against high level al Qaeda detainees.
But Mr. Arar's case proves exactly the opposite. For starters, it was the Canadian government that supplied what appears to have been bad information about Mr. Arar's alleged al Qaeda ties. More to the point, the temptation to get vital information by "rendering" such suspects for interrogation by governments that have little respect for human rights will only increase if the CIA's own al Qaeda interrogation program is shut down. This may make some in Congress feel better about themselves, but it won't do much for the "rights" of those interrogated.
The White House has been negotiating over the issue with Senator John McCain so U.S. interrogators aren't left in legal limbo because Congress refuses to define our obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. It's precisely such legal clarity that will limit potential abuses, rather than leaving Article 3 open to interpretation by individuals -- or by the likes of Syria, since as it stands every country in the world interprets Article 3 in its own way now.
Crucial to any compromise is that the new rules not only protect CIA interrogators under relevant U.S. law (the 1996 War Crimes Act), but also assert our understanding of our obligations under Geneva. This is not about "rewriting" Geneva, as Mr. McCain and others have previously suggested; it is about the necessity of fleshing out what vague Article 3 prohibitions against "humiliating" treatment and the like actually mean.
President Bush has been very strong on this issue so far. We trust he won't endorse anything now that falls short of the comprehensive legal clarity he's been right to demand.