It’s the same lesson from the administration over and over again: with torture, all things are relative.
Back in January, for instance, Attorney General Michael Mukasey patiently explained to Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) how relative that whole conscience shocking thing is. You have to “balance the value of doing something against the cost of doing it.”
And this weekend, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) produced correspondence with the Justice Department showing a similar dance. From The New York Times:
The Justice Department has told Congress that American intelligence operatives attempting to thwart terrorist attacks can legally use interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law….
While the Geneva Conventions prohibit “outrages upon personal dignity,” a letter sent by the Justice Department to Congress on March 5 makes clear that the administration has not drawn a precise line in deciding which interrogation methods would violate that standard, and is reserving the right to make case-by-case judgments.
“The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act,” said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public….
In one letter written Sept. 27, 2007, Mr. Benczkowski argued that “to rise to the level of an outrage” and thus be prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, conduct “must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that should be universally condemned.”
It’s become cystal clear from Mukasey’s testimony to Congress that despite the Supreme Court decisions and efforts by Congress to prohibit the use of torture, there is still plenty of ambiguity. The president’s executive order last year explicitly ruled out the worst of the worst techniques, like murdering, raping or sexually humiliating detainees, but was silent on what is allowed.
And the administration has been successful in keeping things ambiguous for CIA interrogators. When Democrats tried to limit the CIA to using techniques approved by the Army Field Manual, legislation that would have specifically and unambiguously ruled out those “enhanced interrogation” techniques that fall in the gray area, key Republicans like John McCain helped keep things hazy.