Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should not be asking people who might be the attorney general of the United States about what the law says. They should be writing laws that allow no attorney general, and no president, enough wiggle room to excuse practices that clearly violate international law, treaty obligations, the Constitution, common sense and common decency.
Rather than tear their hair as Attorney General-designate Michael B. Mukasey dodges and weaves on the question of whether a heinous technique called waterboarding is torture, and, if it is, whether that makes it illegal, senators should get busy and pass a law that allows no room for lawyerly dissertations.
Such a law would be Sen. Joe Biden's National Security with Justice Act. That's the bill that would limit all U.S. personnel, in uniform or not, to interrogation techniques that are spelled out in the U.S. Army Field Manual. That's the manual written by professionals and experts who know that cruelty doesn't work.
Actions that the world has rightly condemned as torture, such as the near-drowning visited upon waterboarding victims, may elicit screams and pleas for mercy. But they can't be assumed to result in reliable intelligence. People placed in such situations are likely to tell their tormenters anything that sounds good, just to stop the abuse. And, when the people being tortured actually don't know anything, the stuff they make up will be useless or, worse, send our counterterrorism forces off on destructive wild goose chases.
Not only that, it drags the image of the United States down even lower, if that's possible, in world opinion and justifies cruel behaviors toward our captured personnel.
The fact that President Bush himself goes out of his way to double-talk this issue -- what we're doing is legal, but we won't tell you what we're doing -- absolutely screams for congressional action far more decisive than cross-examining and second-guessing administration nominees.
The Senate should confirm Mukasey as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, though doing so by a narrow vote wouldn't be a bad message to send. Then senators of both parties who are rightly offended by this administration's rationalizations of unjustifiable practices can send Mukasey a new law to enforce, one that answers the question of whether the United States allows torture.
The answer is: No.