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Why We Need Another Anti-Torture Law

David Cole argues that the amendment recently introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ban torture “deserves Congress’ and the administration’s unstinting support.”  

“Some might ask why an amendment is necessary, given existing legal bans on torture and cruel treatment… An earlier ‘McCain Amendment,’ made part of the Detainee Treatment Act, makes clear that the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment applies to all persons detained by the United States, wherever they are detained and whatever their nationality. So isn’t this new amendment unnecessary? Unfortunately, it’s not.”  

“While any objective reading of existing US law would conclude that coercive interrogations are prohibited, that’s not how the existing law was interpreted in the wake of 9/11. Lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel interpreted all of the existing prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment to permit what they were plainly designed to prohibit — harsh coercive interrogation tactics, including physical assaults, stress positions, and sleep deprivation.”  

“The lesson of history is that once one allows interrogators to violate the dignity of human beings they are interrogating, serious abuse will inevitably follow. But that lesson needs to be etched in legislation. The existing torture and cruel treatment bans include broad definitions of banned activity, and Justice Department lawyers showed that these broad bans can be willfully misinterpreted to permit what they are designed to prohibit.”

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