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The White House's Tortured Definition of Torture

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The White House announced today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will deliver a comprehensive address on the issues of torture on her European trip this week.

But anyone interested in a glimpse of the elaborate rationale that the White House has constructed for evading application of the "t" word can review Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday night. "We are not going to torture, period," said Gonzales compellingly. He claimed that the president has told him that "even in a situation where you have custody of someone who might have the launch codes of an atomic bomb that's about to go off in Washington D.C. and may kill millions of Americans and that person has the information that may save millions of lives, the president has said we're not going to torture…We don't believe in torture, and we're not going to engage in torture."

Gonzales said all federal government employees were aware of the policy and he dismissed the Abu Ghraib atrocities as the acts of a handful of bad apples on the prison's night shift. "The day shift didn't engage in that kind of conduct."

So far so good. But when asked by Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch whether the administration considered "waterboarding" to be torture, Gonzales refused to answer. "I'm not going to get into a discussion about specific methods of questioning people who have information that may save American lives."

No wonder the troops are confused. If the Attorney General won't say what constitutes torture then how is the night shift at Abu Ghraib supposed to know? Gonzales added, somewhat discordantly, that although he could not share the particulars of the administration's secret definition of torture, everyone in the federal government was already thoroughly aware of those details.

"I'm not going to talk about specific methods that are used by the United States government. What I can say is that everyone in the United State government understands what our legal obligations are."

The Attorney General's demurral opens up a loophole large enough for Torquemada to ride through on a wagonload of Iron Maidens, breaking wheels and thumbscrews.

President Bush has promised to veto the Defense Authorization Bill if it contains language submitted by Senator John McCain prohibiting "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of persons in the detention of the U.S. government." This language would apparently unacceptably narrow the category of behavior that the administration considers permissible under its secret definition of torture.

Gonzales added that the president and Vice President Cheney, who has been leading the charge against the McCain Amendment, are in "100 percent" agreement on their objectives.

In sum, the White House's policy which we can expect Condi to elaborate "comprehensively" is "we don't torture because we choose not to call it torture and we will fight all efforts to define torture according to its ordinary meaning."