Bush executive order bans torture —or approves it?

In a strange case of role-reversal, BBC July 20 takes the more Bush-friendly tack in reporting a new executive order on treatment of detained “terror suspects,” writing in the lead that it bans “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” while the headline states: “Bush bans terror suspect torture.” Not until six paragraphs down do we get the requisite caveats from rights observers—and then in a quote from another news agency. Leonard Rubenstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights, told AP (BBC says): “What is needed now is repudiation of brutal and cruel interrogation methods. General statements like this are inadequate, particularly after years of evidence that torture was authorised at the highest levels and utilised by US forces.” Meanwhile, the establishmentarian New York Times headline on the story reads “C.I.A. Allowed to Resume Interrogations,” and the lead states: “After months of behind the scenes wrangling, the White House said Friday that it had given the Central Intelligence Agency approval to resume its use of some harsh interrogation methods in questioning terrorism suspects in secret prisons overseas.” Gee, doesn’t sound so good after all, does it? Is the BBC still so shaken over the scandal following the 2003 Hutton Report that they are determined to be more Catholic than the Pope?

More from the Times account:

With the new authorization, administration officials said the C.I.A. could now proceed with an interrogation program that has been in limbo since the Supreme Court ruled last year that all prisoners in American captivity be treated in accordance with Geneva Convention prohibitions against humiliating and degrading treatment of detainees.

An executive order signed by President Bush allows the C.I.A. to use some interrogation methods banned for military interrogators but that the Justice Department has determined do not violate the Geneva strictures.


The White House order brought condemnation from human rights groups, who argued that harsh interrogation practices are neither permitted under international law nor are an effective tool for obtaining information from detainees.

The specific interrogation methods now approved for the C.I.A. remain classified, but several officials said that the C.I.A. has abandoned some of the most controversial past techniques, including “waterboarding,” which induces a feeling of drowning, that human rights organizations and some members of Congress have said are equal to torture.

The long-delayed order comes nearly 10 months after President Bush signed legislation that included the first formal Congressional authorization of the C.I.A’s secret detention and interrogation program [the Military Commissions Act], which the White House has called an essential tool for thwarting future terror attacks.

It was a requirement of the bill that the C.I.A. draw up a list of interrogation methods and that the methods be approved by the Justice Department, which recently completed a legal opinion that all of the methods meet Geneva Convention standards.

The delay was the result of often intense disagreements within the Bush administration about just how far to push the boundaries for interrogations and exactly which methods are legal. Earlier this year, State Department officials rejected a draft of the executive order because they believed that the language was too permissive and could open the Bush administration to challenges from American allies that the White House was legalizing methods that approach torture.

Sounds considerably more equivocal than “banning torture” to us.

See our last posts on the torture scandal and the media culture wars.