Conventions, Not Conveniences

Brutal interrogations at secret CIA prisons used to be the stuff of shows like “Alias” and “24.” Two weeks ago, President Bush confirmed they are also the stuff of reality.

Bush stated what Jack Bauer has long led us to suspect: tough techniques work. Accused terrorists Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al Shibh, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed all spilled valuable information once interrogated with what Bush called “an alternative set of procedures.” That information led to the capture of other wanted men and hinted at details for future plots. It may have saved American lives. Nonetheless, controversy has arisen: given the potential value of terrorists’ information, how far can the government go to obtain it? In times of war, the standard since 1949 has been the Geneva Conventions, specifically Common Article Three, which forbids “outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment.”

The Bush administration has been unequivocal in stating that the United States is at war, yet for the last five years Bush has acted as if the Conventions do not apply. The Supreme Court found this summer in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that Common Article Three does indeed apply to the war with Al Qaeda. That holding “put in question the future of the CIA Program,” according to the White House. Bush has responded by proposing the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and demanded in a September 15 press conference that Congress pass it in a form that “will allow this vital program to continue.”

In the last 10 pages, after setting up the military commissions, the bill addresses interrogations with a series of legal definitions and a short list of nine prohibited techniques. These rules are intended to clarify the Geneva Conventions for intelligence personnel. In a time where techniques are facing intense public scrutiny, interrogators will certainly appreciate concrete guidelines. Without them, intelligence officials could face inconsistent standards of what exactly crosses the line of an “outrage on human dignity.” By listing what is not permitted, however, the bill will weaken the Geneva Conventions’ protections because it will define, and thus limit, what constitutes a violation. Specific rules may be desirable, but they do not have to be written in a manner that will undermine the treaty.

Phrasing the clarifications positively would more effectively uphold the Geneva Conventions. The bill, like the Army Field Manual, should list techniques that are allowed. Interrogators may have less creative license, but Bush has assured the country that all methods have already been pre-approved by the Department of Justice. Moreover, any sacrifice in interrogators’ freedom will be well worth the integrity of the Conventions. And listing the techniques in a bill will not jeopardize their secrecy, as Congress can classify the list and keep it safely out of enemy hands.

The Bush administration defends the new bill and the CIA program by arguing that tough interrogations produce information that saves American lives. But undermining the Geneva Conventions, as both the bill and the program do, endangers American lives. When American soldiers are captured, we want the Geneva Conventions to be intact. They are not merely a set of restrictions, but a set of protections. Whatever the inconveniences they present now, their destruction will endanger American prisoners of this war and future wars. Furthermore, the Conventions represent moral standards and humanitarian ideals that Americans have long cherished and protected, even with their lives – these should not be cast aside simply for the administration’s short-term convenience.

President Bush’s legislation, while at the forefront of current debate, is not the only dangerous proposition. Even more disturbing is a bill currently in the Senate’s Committee on Armed Services. Arlen Specter’s bill, the Unprivileged Combatant Act of 2006, would allow captives to be designated “unprivileged combatants,” who are explicitly denied Geneva Convention protections. Such a provision would completely emasculate the treaty, destroying it in practice if not in theory.

If the United States reserves for itself the right to suspend, or even limit, the Conventions, they become a charade. Other signatories are implicitly given permission to do the same, leaving the protections to be enforced only at the captors’ discretion. It is hypocrisy to claim that such legislation amounts to fulfilling our treaty obligations, which Bush adamantly maintains we intend to do.

The United States needs to accept the inconvenience of the moral high ground and defend the Geneva Conventions. American soldiers give their lives to defend our country’s ideals. It is imperative that our government protect them as well as the ideals they defend. We are at war and we must take extraordinary measures to defend ourselves from terrorism, but not at the expense of our morality, our honor, and our safety. The United States signed the Geneva Conventions in 1949 because we valued human dignity. We still do, and we must stay true to our word.

Melissa Quino McCreery ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a chemistry and physics concentrator in Quincy House.