National Commentary

Helen Thomas: GOP Presidential Candidates Are Murky About Torture

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate John McCain is adamantly against the use of torture in interrogating terrorist suspects, but some of his Republican rivals seem to think it’s okay to stop just short of it.

After the abusive treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad — which shocked the world and shamed the United States — it is astounding that all Republicans seeking the White House would not agree with McCain.

McCain was a prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than five years and suffered under the brutal treatment of North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. But he has been back to Vietnam in recent years and has been forgiving of his former tormentors.

The extremist views of the other GOP candidates were bared during the May 15 party debate in Columbia, S.C.

The candidates were quizzed on how aggressively suspects should be handled if the U.S. was under threat of being seriously attacked.

McCain said torture is not about terrorists. ‘It’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are."

Furthermore, he said, the more pain inflicted, "the more they tell us what we want to know."

"If we do agree to torture, we do ourselves great harm in the world," he added.

McCain’s views have won support in the past from retired Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state, who has argued vehemently against the Bush administration’s disregard of the Geneva Conventions governing POW treatment.

Powell has claimed — as have many other U.S. generals — that brutal U.S. treatment of prisoners would greatly endanger the lives of American soldiers taken prisoner in foreign countries.

During the debate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani said — assuming the dire threat scenario described by the questioner — that he would order U.S. military personnel to use every method they can think of to obtain information — but not resort to torture.

He did not rule out waterboarding, where a prisoner is gagged and blindfolded and subjected to simulated drowning.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the key is prevention of terrorist attacks. "I’m glad they’re at (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) where they have no access to lawyers they get here," Romney said. Why would he want to deny them lawyers?

Romney also called for "enhanced interrogation techniques." That could take in a multitude of sins.

He also wanted to double the size of the Guantanamo Bay prison at a time when there is a clamor to shut the whole place down.

Apparently upset with the brutality of some American soldiers who want to avenge their fallen buddies, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has written an open letter to his troops warning that torture and "other expedient methods to obtain information" is both wrong and ineffective.

Petraeus also said it was important to maintain the "moral high ground."

It’s doubtful that anything has hurt the U.S. image more in the world than the photographs of the pyramid of naked bodies of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who signed off on the list of heinous treatments of prisoners, surely bears a huge responsibility.

President Bush has often said "we do not torture." Bush’s spokesman Tony Snow puts it this way: "It’s not our policy to torture."

Unfortunately, too many horrifying photographs showing the use of dogs, shackles, hoods and leg irons belie the protestations of the administration.

Are the GOP candidates trying to prove how tough they are after 9-11? Do they know even serial killers get due process in this country?

Do they believe that American voters no longer cherish the rule of law.

That is the question presidential candidates should be asked.