The White House insists a compromise is possible with congressional critics of its plan to explicitly authorize what it euphemistically calls "alternative" interrogation techniques, or what most people would think of as torture.

The Bush administration apparently has suspended its rougher questioning techniques at CIA-run prisons since the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions against torture apply to all detainees in U.S. custody, even those the administration deems illegal combatants.

Now it is asking Congress in essence to rewrite the Geneva Conventions because their prohibitions against "humiliating and degrading treatment" and "outrages upon personal dignity" are too vague and need clarity.

Says Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "Such phrases standing alone mean different things to Americans. Think of the differences in interpretation that will exist between differing legal systems and cultures of the nations of the world."

The phrasing is purposefully broad and encompassing precisely because cultures and legal systems do vary. Saying that humane and civilized governments should not brutalize captives seems to have plenty of clarity.

The Bush administration is vague about precisely what it would legalize — electric shock, waterboarding, extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation. It would seem that if Congress authorizes some torture, the rest is just a matter of degree.

Four Republican senators, led by John McCain of Arizona, would leave the Geneva Conventions unchanged on the very sensible grounds that any modifications could come back to harm American POWs in foreign custody. Further, it would make the United States look terrible in the eyes of the world.

We should be reclaiming our role as a champion of human rights, not debating at what point the simulated drowning of a captive elides from an "alternative interrogation technique" to outright torture.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)

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