Textual criticism

The NYT goes into the tank for John McCain on the torture bill. He “steadfastly opposes the use of torture,” even as he votes against a bill forbidding torture.

Both Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek tend to be rather telegraphic, leaving as understood what in English would be necessary connecting words. The translators of the King James Version adopted the convention of inserting the missing words in italics.

David Herszenhorn of the New York Times seems to write rather Biblically, leaving out some important words. For those of you not familiar with the NYT-Testament English, I’ve inserted the missing words in brackets in Herszenhorn’s story about the anti-torture bill and John McCain’s vote against it.

In addition to the textual issues, note the conventions of this particular brand of journalism:

1. Only Democrats have political motives.

2. Only Senators have valuable opinions about what does and does not constitute torture. The views of law professors and members of the JAG corps don’t count.

3. Only Senators who support the President have relevant backgrounds. Bond’s chairmanship of Intelligence counts; Lugar’s chairmanship of Foreign Relations doesn’t.

4. Gross inconsistencies in Sen. McCain’s positions must not be mentioned. That McCain wrote a bill that allowed the President to secretly authorize some unknown number of harsh interrogation techniques does not detract from his position as a “steadfast opponent” of torture.



WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday to ban waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods [called “torture” under domestic and international law] that have been used by the Central Intelligence Agency [and an unknown number of other agencies and contractors] against [an unknown number of people described by the government as] high-level terrorism suspects [at least scores of whom have died as a result]. The vote, following House passage of the measure in December, set up a confrontation with President Bush, who has threatened to veto it.

The ban would limit all American interrogators to techniques permitted in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation, which prohibits the use of physical force. It is part of a broader intelligence authorization bill, which cleared the Senate by 51 to 45, with 5 Republicans [including Richard Lugar, the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a universally respected expert on nuclear non-proliferation] joining 45 Democrats and 1 independent in favor.

The Senate action is the latest chapter in a long-running battle between the Democratic majority in Congress and the Bush administration over the treatment of detainees, an issue certain to play a role in the presidential election campaign.

The leading Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war who [says that he] steadfastly opposes the use of torture [but has not protested against signing statements in which President Bush has claimed the authority to ignore Senator McCain’s anti-torture legislation], voted against the bill. Mr. McCain said the ban would limit the C.I.A.’s ability to gather intelligence. “We always supported allowing the C.I.A. to use extra measures [including stress positions, hypothermia, threats to the detainee and his family, severe sleep deprivation, and severe sensory deprivation, all of them constituting torture according to all definitions not devised by the Bush Administration],” he said.

At the same time, he said that he believed “waterboarding is illegal and should be banned” and that the agency must adhere to existing federal law and international treaties [which forbid the techniques the Administration wants to continue using].

The White House again said Mr. Bush intended to veto the bill, on the ground that it would interfere with successful intelligence gathering. And Tony Fratto, a presidential spokesman, said that at least in the case of waterboarding, Democrats were criticizing a method that American interrogators no longer used.

Democratic supporters of the measure hailed its passage and immediately challenged Mr. Bush to veto it, saying that to do so would effectively endorse torture. “If the president vetoes intelligence authorization, he will be voting in favor of waterboarding,” Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York declared at a news conference.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said: “We are taking an important step toward restoring our moral leadership in the world. It is now up to the president to show his own moral leadership and sign this bill into law.”

Campaigning elsewhere Wednesday, the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, did not vote.

Republican opponents of the bill were joined by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, and Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska. They said the legislation could jeopardize national security.

Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Democrats were irresponsibly accusing the C.I.A. of torture and that limiting the interrogators to techniques in the Army Field Manual would seriously undermine American intelligence-gathering efforts.

“Unless the measure is stripped out — or the bill is vetoed, which I expect it will be — if it’s included it would shut down the most prolific source of information, useful actual information that the C.I.A. receives,” Mr. Bond said.

Democrats had expected an effort by Republicans to strip the ban from the larger intelligence bill. But Mr. Bond said Republicans had been mindful of Democrats’ intentions to accuse them [accurately] of favoring torture. He said Republican leaders had decided that letting Mr. Bush veto the measure instead was the best course of action.

Some Republicans said Democrats were trying to force Mr. McCain into a vote that would highlight his differences with the White House. The senator, asked if Democratic political motives were afoot, said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” [Mr. McCain, who did not announce his position on the bill until just before the vote, is desperately trying to mend fences with Republican “base” voters among whom opposition to torture is highly unpopular.]

Explaining [implausibly] why his vote was consistent with his previous positions on interrogation methods, Mr. McCain among other things cited the Military Commissions Act, which Congress adopted in 2006 with his support. It permitted Mr. Bush to authorize the C.I.A. to use techniques other than those allowed in the Army Field Manual. The president approved such techniques in an executive order last July, though what they are remains classified.

The ban approved by the Senate on Wednesday was sponsored by three Democrats — Dianne Feinstein of California, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — and one Republican, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The four other Republicans who voted for the measure were Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon.

The bill would bar interrogators from using anything beyond the 19 interrogation methods approved by the Army Field Manual. These include strategies like “good cop-bad cop,” isolation from other prisoners and interrogators’ posing as representatives of another country.

Among the techniques specifically barred by the manual is waterboarding, in which the detainee is made to feel as if he is drowning. The C.I.A. has acknowledged using the technique against high-level suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks but says it no longer does so. The administration has not ruled out its use at some future time, however.

Human rights groups praised the Senate’s vote. And Senator Feinstein said she remained hopeful that Mr. Bush would sign the bill into law.

“This is a significant achievement,” she said. “The Senate has stood tall, and the House has stood tall, and change is in the air. The president himself said on June 22, 2004: ‘I do not condone torture. We do not torture.’ ”

“So this is the opportunity to put that statement into law,” she added, “and I would hope he would do it.”

Yes, McCain used to be clear about his position on torture. Now, not so much.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com