Commentary: Congressional hearings on torture a bad idea

I declined the one invitation I ever received to witness someone being tortured. It was in Saigon, in 1970.

My acting commander, a major, told me he had been invited to watch while members of a military intelligence unit of the South Vietnamese army interrogated a Viet Cong prisoner. He clearly relished the idea of seeing our allies' interrogation techniques first hand. That the prisoner was a woman whetted his curiosity.

Even if I hadn't been repulsed by the invitation, there was no way I would accompany him. Among the messages pounded into our skulls during six months at the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Ga., was that the U.S. military didn't condone torture and that any officer who participated could be court-martialed.

The major later described what he saw. The woman was bound to a chair, her mouth gagged, while water was poured into her nose, he said.

Years later I learned the interrogation technique, long popular in third world dictatorships, had a name: Waterboarding. The Bush administration, we learned, not only approved waterboarding but also determined that it didn't qualify as torture.

Reports of what U.S. military, CIA and civilian contractors did to suspected terrorists – some of whom turned out to be innocent civilians – have repulsed many Americans. Just how our government came to lower itself to the standards of the third-world thugs will be the subject of historical debate for generations.

That said, I think it would be mistake for Congress to conduct hearings on torture. Rather, that body ought to comply with President Obama's suggestion that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder be allowed to determine whether laws were broken by the previous administration in drafting U.S. interrogation policy.

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