Every time the Bush Administration is accused of torture, the response from the White House is immediate and unequivocal. When the New York Times reported on its front page Thursday that the Justice Department had issued a secret legal opinion in 2005 approving a combination of particularly tough interrogation tactics, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, "The bottom line is that we do not use torture." When Congress and the White House battled over detainee rights in 2006, Vice President Dick Cheney argued that techniques like simulated drowning didn't amount to torture. And last August, after the New Yorker reported the latest in a string of private memos sent to the U.S. government by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) asserting that U.S. interrogation techniques were "tantamount to torture", President Bush said curtly, "We don't torture."
The Administration says its firm, absolutist assertions are designed to protect U.S. troops in case they are captured: by insisting the U.S. doesn't torture, the hope is others will feel compelled to refrain from doing so. But in practice, the Administration's declarations have exactly the opposite effect. It's not just that Washington has very little credibility on the issue, given all the evidence linking the U.S. to torture that has surfaced in recent years, including the opinion of the international body charged with observing detainee treatment. More importantly, by continuing to battle with the ICRC and other international organizations over the definition of torture, the Bush Administration is undermining those groups and diminishing their chances of protecting captured U.S. troops in the future.
To be fair, determining what constitutes torture is harder than you might think. The U.N. convention on torture, to which the U.S. is a signatory, says it is the infliction of severe mental or physical pain to obtain information. The Administration refuses to confirm specific interrogation techniques because it says opponents can train against them if they know what to expect. Extensive reporting, however, has shown that the U.S. has used techniques including raising and lowering temperatures in detainees' cells, withholding food, isolation, sleep deprivation with light or noise, forcing detainees into stress positions, head-slapping and water-boarding or simulated drowning. Critics like Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe, among others, say that some of these techniques individually or in combination can amount to torture.
The organization whose definition of torture matters more than any other, however, is the International Committee for the Red Cross. Under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC is given the unique role of inspecting detention facilities and confronting captors who abuse detainees. Last year, the ICRC inspected some 2,200 places of detention that held an estimated 450,000 detainees.
In order to get access to some of the worst dungeons in the world, the ICRC maintains a near absolute policy of not disclosing their findings. Their ability to pressure and sway abusive captors rests on the moral authority they have developed over more than 140 years as the undisputed arbiter of appropriate treatment of prisoners.
However, the Red Cross's findings on U.S. detainee treatment have leaked repeatedly, presumably from opponents of the Administration's interrogation techniques who had access to them. In those reports, the ICRC has consistently and repeatedly asserted that some U.S. techniques amount to torture. ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal declined to comment on the reports but said, "The dialogue between the ICRC and the U.S. on all matters of detention has always been very vigorous. Where we felt that there were things that needed to be addressed, we did so."
It's not a minor dispute. Every time Bush asserts that the U.S does not torture, he is not just undermining his own credibility, he's diminishing the Red Cross too. "It's a downward spiral," says Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. "If I'm the ICRC and I'm visiting [abused] prisoners in, say, Egypt, the Egyptians will say 'What are you going to do? The U.S. says this isn't torture.'"
Worse, if a dictator in some god-forsaken part of the world captures an American soldier, the U.S. may protest. But it is the Red Cross's assertions of a violation that will be the immediate point of pressure on the captors. "What it virtually guaranteed is that dictatorships will cite the U.S. government's own arguments to defend themselves and that will make it harder for the ICRC and everyone else to condemn and shame those governments," says Tom Malinowski, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.
The Bush Administration does not recognize that it's not just American credibility on the line. Because bolstering the authority of the Red Cross is in the long-term interest of the America and its troops, the U.S. needs to get a clean bill of health from the ICRC on detainee treatment and make sure everyone knows it. Until then, every assertion by Bush or his aides that the U.S. doesn't torture will continue to undermine the organization best positioned to protect captured U.S. troops.