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Published: Friday, 1/16/2009

Torture, confirmed

THE confirmation by a top official in the Bush Administration that the U.S. military tortured at least one Guantanamo detainee is a revelation that demands congressional investigation. This is not some low-ranking flunkie making wild accusations.

Susan Crawford is the first senior Pentagon official responsible for reviewing practices at Gitmo to publicly concede, as she did in a Washington Post interview, that a detainee was tortured. Ms. Crawford was so incensed with the abusive interrogation of the detainee, who has been described as "the 20th hijacker" in the 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, that she ordered the war-crimes charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani dropped last May.

The 61-year-old retired judge, who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is in charge of deciding whether to bring Gitmo detainees to trial. And she has no doubt that Qahtani is a dangerous man who would have been on one of those planes destined for infamy if he had gained access to the country.

After reviewing the charges against him last year, Ms. Crawford concluded that his treatment "met the legal definition of torture" and that's why she didn't refer the case for prosecution. She said her conclusions were drawn from a combination of interrogation techniques that had a "medical impact" on the detainee.

The Saudi national was subjected to practices that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity, and prolonged exposure to cold. The sessions would apparently stretch on for 18 to 20 hours a day and last for weeks.

The interrogation was so intense that the detainee had to be hospitalized twice with bradycardia, a condition in which the heart rate falls below 60 beats a minute and which can lead to heart failure and death. According to Ms. Crawford, the harsh techniques were approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both insisted that detainees were never tortured. Somebody is lying, and we don't believe it is Susan Crawford. There is no indication that she has any reason to do so.

This is not to suggest that Congress needs to launch an endless, time-consuming inquiry that could lead to war-crimes charges against administration officials. In light of the country's grave economic difficulties, such an undertaking might divert the nation from its more immediate problems, which would be counterproductive.

But neither should the truth be covered up or even minimized. As Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney join Mr. Rumsfeld on the public sidelines, we need to know who did what to whom at Guantanamo and in the secret prisons abroad so that such practices are never again countenanced by the government, either openly or covertly.

There is plenty of evidence from a variety of reputable experts that torture produces neither the reliable information nor the quick confessions its proponents claim. And the United States cannot afford to cede the moral highground and be known as a nation that tortures.



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