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Not just a few bad apples

THE WHITE HOUSE'S posture on upholding the Geneva Conventions has been revealed as a pretense. Recently disclosed Bush administration memos on torture are acutely disturbing. They discuss what constitutes torture, who could be charged with inflicting it, how to avoid prohibitions against it. They indicate that administration lawyers were looking for ways to push the limits on interrogating prisoners in the war on terror, and suggest that the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison wasn't the handiwork of a few sadistic soldiers.

The most recent memo, dating from March 2003 and reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, concludes that President Bush could supersede an international anti-torture treaty to preserve national security. The memo, written for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, follows several that deal with similar issues related to the interrogation of prisoners.

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They are persuasive proof that the administration has been less than candid about the intent of its interrogation policies and their use in Iraq and Afghanistan. They reinforce why investigators of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal must follow the trail up the chain of command. They underscore the need to know the atmosphere in which the abuse occurred.

But the memos also illustrate an administration grappling with the changing face of war. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed in graphic images the threat America faces. The nation came away from the horror and destruction of that morning determined to act. But how? U.S. law enforcement, intelligence services and the military are confronting an unconventional enemy who must be dealt with in unconventional ways - an enemy who wages war in the name of religion, who hides among civilians and who dispatches suicide bombers to target the places we reside. But unconventional doesn't mean anything goes.

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In defending his administration, President Bush has reiterated his support for international treaties. "We are a nation of laws," he has said. And that is why the administration memos on torture offend us.

To intimate that this country would employ such tactics against others should pain us. To discover that government lawyers parsed the definitions of torture to find an acceptable method should shame us. To suspect that prisoners of war would be humiliated or harmed in the name of the United States should frighten all of us, because it diminishes our sense of self and nation.


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