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A strange debate

Is America really arguing about torture?

By Bruce Morton
CNN National Correspondent

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World opinion of the United States plummeted after Abu Ghraib, Sen. John McCain says.

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If you cover Washington long enough, you cover all sorts of strange things: audiotape of a president, Richard Nixon, ordering his top aides to burglarize a Washington think tank (they didn't); President Reagan's national security team sending money to help anti-government guerillas in Nicaragua without telling the president, because Congress had forbidden such aid and they were afraid Mr. Reagan would object. Lots of odd things.

I never thought, though, that I would have to write about a debate over Americans using torture on their enemies. Bad guys used torture, I thought; we didn't.

I was, of course, wrong.

Now we are having that debate. Sen. John McCain, the only debater who's actually been tortured -- he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam -- says it doesn't work.

"When enough physical pain is inflicted on someone they'll tell you anything they think you want to know," the Republican from Arizona told CBS on Sunday.

Newsweek magazine reports the story of one member of al Qaeda, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, whom the CIA shipped off to Egypt for interrogation. He told his interrogators all about al Qaeda terrorists going to school in Iraq to learn about chemical weapons, and so on. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used some of that information in his speech to the United Nations. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA had reservations about al-Libi's information. And al-Libi later recanted.

McCain tells the magazine he was tortured to provide the names of others in his squadron. He gave his captors, instead, the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. Probably no one in Hanoi knew the difference.

McCain has proposed legislation to ban "cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners," language that echoes the ban in the Bill of Rights on "cruel and unusual punishment."

President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that includes McCain's language, even though it passed the Senate 90-9 -- far more votes than it takes to override a veto -- and even though it would be the first piece of legislation Mr. Bush had ever vetoed. The House hasn't acted, yet.

'We do not torture' ... or do we?

The administration is ambiguous. The president said, "We do not torture." But he said it a year-and-a-half after the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, and on the news wire I was reading, his statement was immediately followed by a story about more soldiers being charged with prisoner abuse.

Vice President Dick Cheney took a different approach, suggesting to McCain it might be OK to have a bill stating soldiers couldn't abuse detainees, as long as it didn't cover the CIA.

The debate is a little wider than just torture itself. McCain is also against holding detainees without a trial, noting that even Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's man in charge of killing Jews, finally got a trial, although it was in Israel years after World War II ended.

The administration's position is that the commander-in-chief can do whatever he wants; he can imprison anyone -- not just foreigners, to whom the Constitution doesn't apply, but Americans -- indefinitely, without having to charge those people with any crime and without letting them see a lawyer.

'If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen'

The president also suggested the other day that Americans not criticize him. Criticism, he said, helps the bad guys.

But American history is clear on that point. Free speech exists, criticism of our leaders is OK. As president during the Korean War, Harry Truman took lots of it. "If you can't stand the heat," Truman said, "get out of the kitchen."

Lyndon Johnson drew such hostile crowds during the Vietnam War ("Hey, hey, LBJ," the chant, went "How many kids did you kill today?") that toward the end the only places he could speak without hecklers was on military bases. Criticism is in the American tradition.

But torture? The worst thing about it, McCain thinks, is that it hurts us with other countries. "After Abu Ghraib," he told CBS, "public opinion about the United States in the Arab world and throughout the world, plummeted."

Abu Ghraib may have done this country more damage overseas than Watergate, which many Europeans dismissed as some curious American muddle -- nothing serious.

And what do Americans think? In the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 74 percent don't believe their president, and do believe the United States has tortured prisoners. Would they be willing to torture suspected terrorists if those prisoners knew details about future terrorist attacks against the United States? Thirty-eight percent said yes, they'd be willing. Fifty-six percent said no, they wouldn't.

So a majority of Americans disapprove of torture. But I still never thought we'd be having a debate about it.

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