Douglas A. Johnson: It's past time to end the use of torture

  • Article by: DOUGLAS A. JOHNSON
  • Updated: February 7, 2008 - 6:33 PM

Minnesota's U.S. senators should get behind an effort to set humane, consistent standards in the treatment of prisoners.

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U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey is unable or unwilling to say that waterboarding is torture. It should not be a hard call: The United States has prosecuted others for using similar interrogation tactics and has protested their use on Americans.

Even Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., believes waterboarding is torture. Yet surprisingly, he has announced opposition to an amendment that would prohibit its use by the CIA.

For those of us who work with torture victims, there is no question that waterboarding is another in a long line of torture techniques relying on principles of asphyxiation. Their terrible impact relies on more than the panic resulting from cutting off the supply of air. They also constitute forms of mock execution, recognized as a separate and distinct type of torture. Our clients tell us that these experiences haunt their nightmares more than the physical pain they were forced to endure.

Torture and cruelty will not make America more secure. FBI, military intelligence and CIA professionals agree that torture does not work. It yields more faulty information than actionable intelligence, leading to poor policy and dangerous missions based on flawed information.

Pending legislation would create one national standard for the treatment and interrogation of prisoners. An amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2008 would hold the CIA to the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation. The field manual was written by military interrogators and contains their wisdom gained during times of great crisis and threats.

Because of the Senate's rules, it will take 60 votes, not a simple majority, to pass the anti-torture amendment. Coleman's opposition is all the more disappointing because he is a lead sponsor of the Torture Victims Relief Act. He knows better than most the devastating consequences of torture, not just on individuals but on societies.

Congress already holds all Department of Defense personnel to the manual's standards, but not the CIA. Failing to apply consistent standards in the treatment of prisoners causes confusion, unpredictability and dangerous gaps in national policy. Top military lawyers say the executive order approving the CIA program would allow for abuses under the Geneva Conventions, therefore putting troops at risk. The military relies on the humanitarian law standards when they are taken into enemy custody and should have a prominent role in determining how those rules are interpreted by the U.S. government.

Fighting terrorism requires strength of arms, but also strength of character. While maintaining respect for the rule of law and our Constitution, we have prevailed against threats and forces determined to destroy us. Through our example, other nations were moved to adopt the universal principles we lived by.

Minnesotans should be able to count on Coleman's leadership to help restore America as a global leader. He should help pass the amendment to the intelligence bill and undo the practice of torture and cruelty.

Douglas A. Johnson is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.

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