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Torture memois disconcerting

Oregon Editors Say

The public deserves to know how much it influenced procedures

The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times

A March 2003 legal memo from the Justice Department that gave President Bush the all clear to order torture of suspected terrorists deserves an unflinching look. However, the problem is that the memo itself is just another glimpse through the keyhole of how the government is handling the war on terror.

It's a disconcerting glimpse. Pentagon officials Monday were quick to deny that the 56-page memo had any influence on how prisoners were treated at the detainment facility at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba U.S. naval base, where hundreds were detained after the 9-11 attacks.

The memo makes it hard to escape the conclusion that, early on, the Bush administration was looking for a ruling on how much torture was legally defensible. The defense department's general counsel, William J. Haynes, appointed a group of lawyers led by Mary Walker, the Air Force general counsel, to find such a legal justification for a no-holds-barred approach to prisoner interrogation.

In a 56-page confidential memo made public Monday by the Wall Street Journal, the lawyers wrote that President Bush wasn't bound by any national or international anti-torture laws. Such laws, they said, must be construed as inapplicable to interrogation undertaken pursuant to his commander in chief authority.

Specifically, the administration wanted to know how far interrogators could go in December 2002 with their interrogation of Saudi detainee Mohamed al-Kahtani, who was suspected of being the 20th hijacker involved in plotting the 9-11 attack. The worst treatment anyone knows of is that Al-Kahtani was forced to shave his beard and he was fed cold food.

No doubt he also lost some sleep. Not nice, but suspected terrorists don't expect five-star treatment. Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the memo wasn't a blueprint for detainee treatment. He said the 24 interrogation techniques permitted at Guantanamo four of them requiring Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's prior approval were consistent with international and American law. If so, why ask how much torture is OK?

With our snapshot exposure to these facts, it's hard to know whether this truly was a glimpse of an entrenched wish to act outside the law, or simply a misguided aberration. Until the public has the information to make such judgments, Bush administration officials shouldn't be too surprised that the public is losing its willingness to follow its lead in the war on terror.