Is the U.S. really against torture? It’s hard to tell

Elisa Massimino writes: President Barack Obama brought the U.S. commitment against torture into sharper focus on Wednesday. For a president who prohibited torture as one of his first official acts, this shouldn’t be news. But it is.

At issue is Washington’s interpretation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Seeking to exempt American abuse of detainees overseas, President George W. Bush had broken with his predecessors and claimed that the treaty didn’t apply outside the United States. This strained reading flew in the face of American values, the rule of law and the text of the 1987 treaty.

Despite Obama’s early executive orders in 2009, the administration had never officially repudiated that position. But Wednesday, as a U.S. delegation prepared to appear before the U.N. committee that monitors treaty compliance, the White House announced it would reaffirm that the agreement applies beyond U.S. borders.

The devil, however, is in the details. The administration’s statement says the treaty applies to “places outside the United States that the U.S. government controls as a governmental authority.” That sounds reasonable — unless it means that torture at CIA black sites, or at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be exempt because the United States wasn’t the “government authority” in those places.

Such strategic ambiguity was exploited by Bush administration lawyers to give the veneer of legality to abusive interrogation techniques. [Continue reading…]

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