Financial Times Editorial - Bush has learnt no lessons about torture
Published: September 8 2006 03:00 | Last updated: September 8 2006 03:00
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Virtually on the eve of the September 11 anniversary, President George W. Bush has issued a remarkable defence of what the Central Intelligence Agency did to detainees at secret prisons abroad, techniques that he calls "tough but safe" - but the rest of the us call torture. On Wednesday he even went so far as to brag about how much information the CIA had obtained by using those methods against the al-Qaeda VIPs detained in those prisons.
So the rest of the world can be forgiven for wondering just how much is likely to change, now that Mr Bush has finally acknowledged that secret prisons do exist. True, he says the CIA ghost cells have been emptied, and their most dangerous inmates transferred to the relative limelight of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. That is good: it brings them one step closer to public trial and legal due process.
And true, the president made sure that his full-throated defence of "rendition" coincided with some news that seems to indicate a kinder, gentler detention policy: new detention and interrogation rules from the Pentagon that comply with the Geneva conventions and explicitly ban some techniques believed to have been favourites of US interrogators, such as forced nudity and simulated drowning.
But we should not be fooled by what appear to be concessions to the international community, to human rights critics and to the US Supreme Court (which recently slapped down the president's plans for trying terror suspects). For Mr Bush made clear that, though empty, the secret prisons will continue to exist - and he even had the audacity to demand that Congress give the CIA interrogators who operate there, and are not covered by the new Pentagon rules, a new immunity from prosecution for all but the most egregious forms of torture.
In short, rendition can go on exactly as it did before, and if the US is lucky enough to catch another al-Qaeda VIP tomorrow (and if Congress concedes to the Bush request) his interrogators would have virtual carte blanche for how they treat him. The military can keep its hands clean, while the CIA plunges into this murky mess up to its elbows.
The president's defiance did not end there: on Wednesday he proposed new rules for how the former secret prisoners will be tried, now that they have made their new home at Guantánamo Bay. But his plan for military commissions to try them is uncannily, some would say insultingly, close to the plan rejected angrily by the US Supreme Court only two months ago as illegal.
The prosecutors could use evidence obtained through coercion, or hearsay, or evidence that is kept totally secret from the accused. These are violations of the most basic principles of justice, and thankfully, even some Republican Senators have had the courage to condemn them. But that does not mean they will have the courage to reject the plan in the end, on the eve of mid-term elections in which the Republicans face the prospect of serious losses.
Five years after launching a war on terror that has undermined America's moral authority abroad - and proved spectacularly counter-productive in the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world - Mr Bush seems to have learnt few lessons about why torture and martial law will not win this war for him. For the benefits of intelligence gleaned, if any, are ultimately outweighed by the damage to America's standing at home and abroad.