Interrogation trials would torture U.S.

This week’s swine flu scare has, for the time being, taken the spotlight off the festering fight over torture. But rest assured, that fight will resume, with some folks on the left crying for Bush-administration blood in the form of torture prosecutions, congressional hearings or truth commissions.

President Barack Obama, who ignited the most recent clash by ordering the release of Bush-era memos on terrorist interrogations, has been strangely ambivalent about what should happen next. Sometimes he says it’s time to put the past behind us. At other times, he has suggested he is open to the possibility of investigating those who authorized techniques such as waterboarding.

We hope he takes a solid stand against what would amount to show trials — whether in court or the halls of Congress.

Those public circuses would consume Washington and the nation in an even greater partisan divide than we now endure — the very kind of rift that Obama has repeatedly said he wants to heal.

Imagine the bitterness that would grow as Democrats repeatedly and publicly pummel Bush administration legal advisers, including one who is now a federal judge, about their understanding of our laws and international rules on torture.

And imagine the tit-for-tat response that would follow, as Republicans posed the same questions of Democratic leaders who were briefed multiple times about the interrogations.

Worse, such an inquisition will set a dangerous precedent that the United States has avoided for more than 200 years. Do we really want every president and his or her team taking action based, not on what they believe is best for the country, but to protect themselves from politically motivated prosecutions after they leave office? If it happens now, what is the likelihood that some future Republican administration and Republican Congress will mount an investigation into whether Obama’s economic plans amount to unconstitutional federal involvement in the private sector?

Those who read the recently released documents will see that the Bush team and CIA leaders were not a bunch of torture-happy Torquemadas. They operated under strict guidelines, whether using waterboarding, sleep deprivation or a dozen other techniques.

Those guidelines indicated how long an interrogation session could last, what could be done during a session, what medical personnel must be available and more.

One can dispute whether the United States should engage in some of these techniques, and many do. We have long argued that if Congress wants to prohibit waterboarding and other techniques, it can pass a law doing so. President Bush vetoed legislation containing such prohibitions last year, but Obama won’t.

But it’s also clear from the documents that Bush’s legal authorities were struggling to determine what was legal and what was not under the imprecise language of then-existing federal law.

These weren’t criminal acts by people who willfully ignored the law, but difficult decisions by those trying to stop the next terrorist attack, while staying within the law as they interpreted it.

They don’t deserve to be prosecuted for that effort, and the nation doesn’t deserve to be torn further apart to feed some people’s desire for vengeance.


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