As psychologists point out, information obtained under such conditions is often useless, wrenched as it is from a victim desperate to stop the pain. Nevertheless, they have been among the C.I.A.s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. According to two 2005 classified memos whose existence was reported on Oct. 4, the Justice Departments Office of Legal Counsel gave a green light to the use of many of these abusive techniques. Congress, with good reason, is now demanding to see the memos. The issue of torture emerged at the confirmation hearings of Michael B. Mukasey, the administrations nominee for the position of attorney general. Asked whether waterboarding was torture, Judge Mukasey gave a disappointingly evasive answer.
International law has long prohibited the use of any form of torture. Even in times of war, treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have banned all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions prohibitions against degrading treatment cover prisoners of the United States. The U.S. Armys own interrogation manual, moreover, bans practices like waterboarding. That the C.I.A. has apparently used them places the United States in close company with known human rights abusers like China, Egypt and Myanmar.
Jennifer Daskal, senior terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watchs U.S. program, told America the Bush administrations claim that the C.I.A.s use of enhanced techniques does not deserve the name of torture is based on an absurdly narrow definition of torture. Although it is unknown to what extent these techniques are still in use, she emphasized that they have undermined our credibility as a standard-bearer for human rights and made it very difficult for U.S. diplomats to effectively criticize human rights abuses elsewhere. The situation is all the more ironic when one recalls that after World War II, U.S. military commissions prosecuted captured Japanese personnel for using waterboarding and other techniques that the C.I.A. has evidently used in recent years.
Of special concern is the use of what is known as extraordinary rendition, the C.I.A.s practice of shipping terror suspects to secret prisons abroad, where suspects could be subjected by local agents or its own personnel to the harshest of interrogation techniques. One recent case concerned a German of Lebanese descent, Khaled el-Masri, who was seized in 2003 as he was entering Macedonia for a vacation. Drugged and transported to a secret location in Afghanistan, he claims that he was tortured over a five-month period and then taken to Albania, where he was released. The U.S. government admitted to Germany that it had mistakenly identified him as a terrorist suspect. After his release, he filed a federal lawsuit against the then-director of the C.I.A. Refusing to hear his case, the Supreme Court ruled that to do so might compromise national security.
This past June 26 was designated United Nations Day Against Torture, to commemorate both the day the Convention Against Torture came into being and the day the U.N. charter was signed in 1945. So far, though, the Bush administration is not even paying those landmark achievements anything more than lip service. A congressional inquiry into the Justice Departments 2005 classified memos and their contents cannot come soon enough. The administrations denial of engaging in torture must be exposed and be replaced by a level of transparency long overdue when it concerns a nation claiming to be a standard-bearer for human rights.