"I've said to people we don't torture. And we don't."
That's what President Bush told Katie Couric yesterday.
That was a very odd thing to say on the very day his Pentagon repudiated interrogation "techniques" it had been using and embraced international standards for humane treatment of all detainees in military custody. These standards, by the way, will still not apply to detainees in CIA custody who can still be subjected to "techniques" — translation: torture.
The president also told Ms. Couric that one of the things he felt badly about from his tenure was Abu Ghraib. Now Abu Ghraib was where torture was photographed and then shown to the world. Similar torture was carried out, we learned, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
But, "I've said to people we don't torture. And we don't."
What is being tortured here is the truth.
The president's statement here is beyond doublespeak and above spin. It's untrue, it's egregious. The Pentagon's backhanded, long-delayed and uncourageous acknowledgment that torture was used also repudiated what the president has been telling citizens for years. We've been lied to and we are still being lied to. By the president.
Now, foes of President Bush are indignant that he can "get away with it." They blame a biased press, a manipulative regime and, I suppose, an electorate they see as ignorant.
The president's defenders also blame a biased press. They split hairs about what torture is — sleep deprivation is OK, but jumper cables aren't. They also argue that torture may be justified in some cases, though that is not really what the president himself has asserted.
I'm guessing that one reason that the president "gets away with it" is that many people do what the president's formal defenders do: make strong arguments themselves even though the president doesn't. If a voter sees a rationale for, say, "interrogation techniques," even though the president has never stated it, and in fact speaks dishonestly about it, that voter may still give the president the benefit of the doubt.
In truth, many people pragmatically and ethically believe that what anyone would call torture may be permissible if it has a certainty of preventing other loss of innocent life. This is an ancient, ongoing debate. It is not immoral to come out on the tough side. But the international community, through vehicles such as the Geneva Conventions, has long been on the other side.
The president has danced all around this. We do what's necessary, he says, but we don't torture. Right.
I can't see what the downside would be of a simple honest declaration now that the Pentagon is formally changing its policy. Something like: "Yes, in the wake of 9/11, military and intelligence agencies trying to protect our country, interrogated terrorists using methods that can only be called torture. We felt this was necessary to prevent the loss of innocent life, perhaps on a massive scale. This did involve a compromise with international standards and American values and we paid dearly for that. We are changing that policy, which we once felt was justified. But we reserve the right to do what is necessary to protect human life and certain U.S. agencies will not be covered by the new Pentagon policies."
I may not agree with that — but it is honest.
The administration, of course, is in the midst of yet again repackaging its entire justification for the war on terror and the war on Iraq. By invoking Hitler, Stalin and Nazism, they are trying to rev up their conservative base and somehow discredit the Democrats by implying they aren't worthy of taking on Adolf bin Laden.
This is a fool's errand. Voters already have a very modest opinion of the Democrats' national security credentials, and that will not change in this election cycle. Most voters also have settled views on the threat of Islamist terrorism.
What is unsettled for voters is their view of the president's and the administration's honesty and competence in combating what it calls the "great battle of the 21st century."
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer