A few weeks ago (see below, November 9) I reproduced a long exchange between Scott McClellan and the White House press corps on the subject of torture. Today there was another such exchange in which an intrepid reporter finally asked the key question which I raised then. Here it is.
Q I wanted to also follow up on Terry's questions about the reports of secret prisons, and the rationale for not saying to the American people whether or not such places exist. Do you feel it somehow gives away something to the enemy to confirm or deny the existence of these places?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the American people understand the importance of us using all available tools to win the war on terrorism and to try to prevent attacks from happening in the first place. But it's important for people to understand, also, that we have laws and values and international obligations that we believe very strongly in, and that we adhere to. And that's why we're talking about those issues. There are some difficult issues that you have to address when you're facing a different kind of enemy in a different kind of war. And those are discussions that we'll continue to have.
We're having discussions with members of Congress on some of these issues. We're working together. We all have some shared priorities, and we're talking about issues to help us make sure that we're doing everything within our power to try to disrupt and prevent attacks from happening in the first place, while also acting in a way that is consistent with those laws and those values.
Q But my question has to do with whether or not you confirm the existence, regardless of what's happening there and what techniques are being used, whatever, how does that protect American security by not acknowledging --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not getting into confirming or denying anything. I think that when you're talking about -- I mean, some of the reports talk about people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammed and Bin al-Shibh. I mean, these are dangerous terrorists that have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans. And I think the American people understand the importance of us getting valuable information that can help us to defeat the terrorists and prevent attacks from happening. This is about their safety and security.
But in terms of the issues related to this, yes, I think the American people understand the importance -- and this is not talking about any particular issue -- but they do understand the importance of the war on terrorism, of not talking about intelligence, because it could hurt our efforts to prevail.
[It does not seem to be an unfair interpretation of that paragraph to say the McClellan wants the world to know that we got important information by torturing Khalid Shaykh Muhammed and Bin-al-Shibh, and that we are glad that we did so, while denying that the Adminstration engages in torture.]
Q Scott, when you say, "using all available tools," and then you talk about laws, I think it is a little confusing for many of us Americans that all available tools means all available tools, if you won't confirm or deny the prisons overseas --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I said consistent with our laws and our treaty obligations. The President has made it very clear that we do not torture, he would never condone torture or authorize the use of torture. If someone doesn't abide by our laws, they're held accountable, and we have done that.
That's the difference between us and others. When it comes to human rights, there is no greater leader than the United States of America, and we show that by holding people accountable when they break the law or they violate human rights. And we show that by supporting the advance of freedom and democracy and supporting those in countries that are having their human rights denied or violated, like North Korea. We show that by liberating people in Afghanistan and Iraq, some 50 million people. And no one has done more when it comes to human rights than the United States of America.
Q It's still not clear --
MR. McCLELLAN: And I think -- and I disagree with you. I think the American people understand. I disagree with your characterization that you think most Americans don't.
Q No, I'm not saying that. I think Americans certainly understand "all available tools," and understand the possibility of prisons overseas. I suppose my question really is, we still don't have a clear definition of what torture is. If we're going to stop imminent attacks --
MR. McCLELLAN: There are already laws on the books about torture that prevent -- that prohibit torture, and it spells out what those laws are and the treaty obligations. And we're parties to those treaties.
Q But, yet, it hasn't been possible to get from you a confirmation when we've been very specific about what specific things might or might not be torture, what they are.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to talk about national security intelligence matters. I'm just not going to get into talking about that.
The definition of torture, in short, is a "national security intelligence matter." The press works painfully slowly, and the time has come, one should think, for someone to quote to McClellan the Administration memo on the subject that defined it as techniques leading to organ failure or death and ask him if he approves of it.
Not wishing to be left behind in the contest for this year's Doublespeak Award, Alberto Gonzales yesterday discussed his predecessor John Ashcroft's decision to overrule the unanimous opinion of his career personnel, who concluded that Tom Delay's redistricting plan for Texas would illegally reduce minority representation, and approve it. From today's New York Times:
"Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales defended approval of the plan, telling reporters on Friday morning that he was confident that the decision was correct. Conflicting views simply reflected a healthy deliberative process, Mr. Gonzales said.
"The plan, which had largely been developed by Representative Tom DeLay and which was subsequently upheld by a three-judge federal appeals court panel, led to Republicans' gaining five seats in the House in the election last year.
"Pointing to the court's acceptance, Mr. Gonzales said the skepticism of career lawyers did not 'mean that it was an incorrect decision.'
"'Ultimately, someone has to make a decision," he said. "We're not going to politicize decisions within the department.'"
No, heaven forbid.