A PIECE of legislation sits on the desk of President Bush today, awaiting his signature. Every expectation is that he will veto it. Another mistake.
The bill is the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 2008, with a provision tying CIA interrogation techniques to the US Army Field Manual, which is explicit in prohibiting "acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, or exposure to inhumane treatment." The CIA would henceforth be forbidden to engage in any kind of torture, but so would any "instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location." The legacy of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions, and black sites would finally be sealed. The United States would bind itself to one standard of interrogation, completely prohibiting any form of torture. The nation would be back in line with standards of the Geneva Convention, and, as a group of retired admirals and generals put it recently, with "the moral principles on which this country was founded."
Dozens of former military leaders, in a campaign orchestrated by the human rights organization Human Rights First, have been actively working to get all forms of inhumane interrogation outlawed, including those practiced by the CIA. The three points the military leaders make are that information obtained through brutality is unreliable, American soldiers will be subject to similar mistreatment, and that procedures in violation of internationally recognized norms are dishonorable. Their advocacy was part of what led to the passage of the legislation that is now before Bush. Unfortunately, the number of congressional votes in favor of the bill fell short of the margin needed to override a presidential veto.
No one's vote meant more than Senator John McCain's, and here is where the first shock is felt. After leading the charge against torture in all its forms - McCain has been vigorous in denouncing the Bush administration's refusal to outlaw waterboarding - the Arizona senator voted against extending his own firmly stated standard to the CIA.
"What we need," he said in explaining his vote against the Intelligence Authorization Act, "is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual, but rather to have a good faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible in the CIA program." Because McCain, a torture survivor, has such credibility on the question, his negative vote provided cover for many others, which is why Bush's expected veto can be upheld.
But what is this appeal to "good faith"? Firmly rebutting McCain's assertion, Lieutenant General Harry Soyster, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and one of the most active of the Human Rights First cadre of military leaders, said, "But as Senator McCain well knows, the Bush administration has never provided a good faith interpretation of laws prohibiting torture; instead it has produced - and continues to produce - legal opinions that downgrade the definition of torture to the point where the term becomes virtually meaningless and any conduct at all is permissible."
Waterboarding is the prime example here, making it the flash point of debate. Last week, the current head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that such simulated drowning is inhumane and in violation of the Geneva Conventions. His agency's interrogation methods conform to the Army Field Manual.
The Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA are alike in being global intelligence agencies, but they have been at odds with each other before. The issue is personal to me because my father, Lieutenant General Joseph Carroll, was founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. General Soyster was its head when my father died, and at dad's funeral at Arlington, he presented the flag to my mother.
My father was of that World War II generation of American military figures whose sense of moral purpose was firm. I arrived at different conclusions on large questions of war and peace, but the basic values of decency and honor embodied in my father's career remain ideals against which I measure everything.
That torture is even a subject of debate in this country is a flabbergasting development. That dozens of America's most admired military leaders find themselves openly opposing the commander in chief on such a question is equally surprising. Another astonishment is that McCain, avatar of military honor, finds it necessary, according to his perceptions of what politics requires, to trim his opposition to torture. It may be just that unthinkable now that Bush will sign the bill before him. But who knows? On torture, the shocks abound.