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Tortured (and Waterboarded and Electro-Shocked) Logic

The ConWeb learns to love U.S. torture of detainees, either by redefining it or wholeheartedly embracing it.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 12/13/2005
Updated 12/17/2005

One would think that the ConWeb would surely not be so partisan and unseemly as to appear to support torture of detainees by U.S. troops and intelligence officials.

Oh, how wrong one would be.

The amendment offered to a defense appropriations bill by Sen. John McCain to prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" against any "individual in the custody or under the physical control of the [U.S.] government" has sent the ConWeb into a tizzy. Their response can be divided into two categories: redefining terms so that the word "torture" doesn't apply to anything the U.S. does, or enthusiastically embracing the concept of torturing detainees.

NewsMax has thrown itself into the latter category with a Nov. 29 article calling McCain a hypocrite for his anti-torture amendment because torture worked on him while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam:

Sen. John McCain is leading the charge against so-called "torture" techniques allegedly used by U.S. interrogators, insisting that practices like sleep deprivation and withholding medical attention are not only brutal - they simply don't work to persuade terrorist suspects to give accurate information.

Nearly forty years ago, however -- when McCain was held captive in a North Vietnamese prison camp -- some of the same techniques were used on him. And -- as McCain has publicly admitted at least twice -- the torture worked!

The article concludes: "That McCain broke under torture doesn't make him any less of an American hero. But it does prove he's wrong to claim that harsh interrogation techniques simply don't work."

But NewsMax does some highly misleading and selective citing of McCain's writings to arrive at the conclusion that torture "worked" on him. As Media Matters details, while NewsMax cited an instance of how McCain wrote in his autobiography that he gave his captors "my ship's name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant" and noted that the information "was of no real use" to his captors, NewsMax failed to report what McCain wrote after that -- that he continued to give his captors even more useless information, Pressed for more useful information, giving the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line as members of his squadron and, when asked to identify future bombing targets, recited the names of North Vietnamese cities that had already been bombed.

NewsMax also wrote that McCain, after reaching a "breaking point" following mistreatment, signed a document confessing to war crimes. But, as Media Matters reported, McCain was clear in his autobiography that the document he ultimately signed accused him of committing crimes that his captors would have had no evidence that he committed -- such as bombing a school. "I used the words that I hoped would discredit its authenticity, and I tried to keep it in stilted generalities and Communist jargon so that it would be apparent that I had signed it under duress," McCain wrote.

This is NewsMax's definition of torture "working" -- that it produced false and useless information and a coerced, false confession from McCain.

(Update: NewsMax takes the silly route in a Dec. 16 article, repeating a Los Angeles Times column by Max Boot claiming that basic training for the Army and Marines is also torture. There's no mention of the crucial differences between basic training and torture: the willingness of the person on the receiving end and the ultimate goal of the treatment.)

The rest of the ConWeb, meanwhile, has been less brazen in its support for torture. A Dec. 8 WorldNetDaily article, headlined "Why McCain's 'torture ban' means more death," teased that "U.S. military interrogation techniques critical to extracting information that would save the lives of American troops and innocent civilian have already been widely restricted." But the details are, for now, being kept behind the pay wall of WND's G2 Bulletin.

(Update: WND editor Joseph Farah expanded on the G2 Bulletin article in a Dec. 16 column, and played the redefinition game as well. "Let me put this simply: The U.S. military doesn't torture prisoners," Farah wrote, claiming that the McCain amendment will be "prolonging our wars, aiding the enemy with invaluable propaganda, turning the world against the United States for something it is not doing and costing civilian and military lives." This follows an Oct. 21 column in which Farah declared that Christians are too squeamish about torture: "Let me introduce myself: I, Joseph Farah, hereby deny that these practices are cruel and inhuman.")

A Dec. 6 Accuracy in Media column by Roger Aronoff throws up a smokescreen of revisionism, trying to throw definitions of words into doubt. "But how is torture defined?" Aronoff asks. "Is it torture to humiliate someone, whether through sexual innuendo or touching a copy of the Koran? Is it torture to deprive someone of sleep, or force them to sit in an uncomfortable position?"

Aronoff added that "[t]he controversy is further muddled by the fact that many of the detainees, namely the suspected terrorists, are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which have strict definitions of 'prisoner of war' status." But in fact, the question of whether the detainees deserve Geneva Convention protection is still very much an open one.

As Media Matters again points out (full disclosure: I am a Media Matters employee), the International Committee for the Red Cross insists that under international law, all detainees are either POWs, civilians, or medical personnel. And actually, the Bush administration applies Geneva Convention protections to Taliban-related detainees, though not to al-Qaeda-related detainees.

More redefinition of terms comes from the conservative Center for Individual Freedom (last noted here botching facts during the battle earlier this year over judicial nominations) which has twice used NewsMax's mailing list to solicit donations to blast-fax congressmen to "strip this vile [McCain] amendment in conference if they ever hope to regain the support of the American people."

According to the CFIF and its president, Jeff Mazzella, "the phrase "degrading treatment" -- which could have been invented by Amnesty International -- is so vague and full of holes you could drive a Hummer through it." It claims without evidence that the McCain amendment would outlaw techniques such as "[s]olitary confinement, harsh language, ridicule, mild threats, good-cop-bad-cop" and "restrict interrogators to the etiquette of a ladies' lawn party." It further claims, again without supporting evidence:

Let's Clear Up A Few Things Right Now
  • We don't torture prisoners. We don't blindfold them, threaten them with execution, and televise their pathetic pleas for life.
  • We don't condone cruel and unusual punishments. For example, we don't lop off prisoners' heads in front of TV cameras.
  • With few exceptions, we treat prisoners as humanely as any enemy has ever treated its enemies. Ask the handful of U.S. troops who survived captivity how the terrorists treated them.
Period. End of discussion.

And how much will this blast-faxing set a motivated activist? CFIF wants "A Minimum Contribution of $20.00, But You May Give More If You Wish."

Seems like a lot of money for sending some faxes, doesn't it? Perhaps, but when you're already endorsing torture or playing a game of semantics to disguise the fact that you are, what's a little overcharging?

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