We sentenced Japanese for this

Published October 22, 2006

Flanked by the panjandrums of shame and the dirty hands gang, including the current attorney general and the vice president, President Bush on Tuesday signed into law the Military Commissions Act, a law that will go down in history as an obscenity against liberty and decency.

No presidential signing statement accompanies this bill. Bush got the despotic powers he wanted, or as White House spokesman Tony Snow explained it: "They did a really good job this time," meaning that you don't have to confiscate power by rewriting a law when Congress hands it to you.

In touting the measure, Bush declared that the "CIA program" would now be allowed to continue and interrogators could return to performing "their duties to the fullest extent of the law." He presumably means that the CIA will once again be free to use reported techniques such as water-boarding - in which a prisoner is made to feel like he's drowning - or forcing shackled prisoners to stand in one place for 40 hours or more, or exposing naked prisoners to 50-degree temperatures and drenching them with cold water.

Bush was strident in asserting that the CIA chamber of horrors or "program" could be open for business again. But at the same time, the president gravely assured us: "The United States does not torture."

Interestingly, we weren't nearly as blithe about waterboarding when it happened to our own guys during World War II. Then, we considered it a war crime and a form of torture.

In "Drop by Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture in U.S. Courts," Judge Evan Wallach of the U.S. Court of International Trade has documented the trials in which the United States used evidence of water-boarding as a basis for prosecutions. The article, still in draft form, will be published soon by the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.

Among the numerous examples, Wallach cites one involving four Japanese defendants who were tried before a U.S. military commission at Yokohama, Japan, in 1947 for their treatment of American and Allied prisoners. Wallach writes, in the case of United States of America vs. Hideji Nakamura, Yukio Asano, Seitara Hata and Takeo Kita, "water torture was among the acts alleged in the specifications ... and it loomed large in the evidence presented against them."

Hata, the camp doctor, was charged with war crimes stemming from the brutal mistreatment and torture of Morris Killough "by beating and kicking him (and) by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils." Other American prisoners, including Thomas Armitage, received similar treatment, according to the allegations.

Armitage described his ordeal: "They would lash me to a stretcher then prop me up against a table with my head down. They would then pour about 2 gallons of water from a pitcher into my nose and mouth until I lost consciousness."

Hata was sentenced to 25 years at hard labor, and the other defendants were convicted and given long stints at hard labor as well.

Wallach also found a 1983 case out of San Jacinto County, Texas, in which James Parker, the county sheriff, and three deputies were criminally charged for handcuffing suspects to chairs, draping towels over their faces and pouring water over the towel until a confession was elicited. One victim described the experience this way: "I thought I was going to be strangled to death. ... I couldn't breath."

The sheriff pleaded guilty and his deputies went to trial where they were convicted of civil rights violations. All received long prison sentences. U.S. District Judge James DeAnda told the former sheriff at sentencing, "The operation down there would embarrass the dictator of a country."

But not our president. He's just about as proud as can be of the "program," boasting about all the fine intelligence we've extracted from the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while conveniently ignoring all the bad information that spilled out of him that sent our law enforcement on wild goose chases.

A former CIA insider suggests that the president has got it all wrong if he thinks CIA interrogators are looking for license to mistreat prisoners.

According to Fred Hitz, former CIA inspector general and veteran CIA operations officer: "There's nobody out there in the CIA that I can imagine who wants to be governed by a set of standards that is different from those in the Army Field Manual." Under that manual, abusive techniques are strictly barred.

So it's really the president and vice president and their minions who are pushing for interrogation techniques that Dr. Allen Keller, who directs a program for torture survivors in New York, calls "torture" and the infliction of "serious physical or mental pain and suffering."

Our leaders think the Military Commissions Act gives them the thumbs-up. But morality, common decency and history surely won't.