US Christians want tougher controls on terror interrogations

By staff writers
August 12, 2007

The church-backed US National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) [] is speaking out against a new executive order from President George W. Bush that broadly outlines the limits of how suspects may be questioned in the CIA's terror interrogation programme.

The order, which Bush signed in July 2007, bans torture, cruel and inhumane treatment, sexual abuse, acts intended to denigrate a religion or other degradation "beyond the bounds of human decency." It pledges that detainees will receive adequate food, water and medical care and be protected from extreme heat and cold.

It does not, however, say what techniques are permitted during harsh questioning of suspects.

That has become a matter of debate in the United States and elsewhere, including with NRCAT, a coalition of more than 125 religious organizations, which has called on the US government to forswear the use of torture without exception.

"At the same time the executive order says it prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, it allows the CIA to continue to use undefined and undisclosed 'alternative interrogation techniques,' thereby calling into question whether the prohibition is real," said Linda Gustitus, president of NRCAT's board of directors, in a recent statement issued by the anti-torture group.

"In addition, the executive order does not close secret prisons nor prohibit sending detainees to countries which have been known to use torture in interrogation (rendition to torture), nor assure that every detainee has access to the International Red Cross," she added.

NRCAT was founded by the Rev George Hunsinger, a Presbyterian minister and theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, in response to allegations of human rights abuses at U.S. detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The group was launched during a conference convened by Hunsinger at Princeton seminary in January 2006 and represents Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith traditions.

Bush's executive order is intended in part to quell criticism by organizations like NRCAT regarding some of the CIA's most controversial interrogation tactics.

In the past, CIA methods are believed to have included sleep deprivation and disorientation, exposing prisoners to uncomfortable cold or heat for long periods, stress positions and a simulated drowning technique known as 'waterboarding'.

Former CIA director George Tenet and current CIA director Michael Hayden are both on the record as saying that interrogation techniques used earlier were irreplaceable and had saved lives.

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, in a rare broadcast interview on July 22, defended the new executive order. He would not identify what CIA interrogators are allowed to do in getting information from terror suspects, but tried to assure critics that torture is not condoned or used.

"If I announce what the specific measures are, it would aid those who want to resist those measures," McConnell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "So I won't be too specific."

Gustitus said in the statement that the president's executive order and the comments by intelligence officials only reaffirms the US government's policy of treating some people "as outside the protection of any law and of using, in the name of national security, techniques that push (and may in fact exceed) the limits of the definition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

Gustitus said the US government should instead affirm the right of every human being "to be protected by the laws of civilized society and decrying any treatment that comes close to the edge of cruel, inhuman and degrading."

She called the issuance of Bush's executive order "another shameful step in the US treatment of detainees" in the war on terror.

The statement said that as people of faith, "who value our common humanity and our religious responsibility to treat all people with decency and the due process protections of civilized law, that we urge" President Bush to:

* Immediately stop the use of interrogation techniques that are "cruel and inhuman."
* Disclose what alternative interrogation techniques are used. * Close all secret prisons.
* End the rendition of suspects to countries thought to use torture; and
* Provide the International Red Cross access to detainees held in US custody.

The statement also called on Congress to prohibit the use of any CIA funds for programmes or activities that fail to treat all persons detained with "decency and the protections of due process."

With thanks to the Presbyterian Church (USA) News Service

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.