A long-awaited executive order issued by President Bush last week bans torture while at the same time giving the Central Intelligence Agency the approval to use “enhanced interrogation measures” against captives in the war on terror.

What’s the difference between torture and “enhanced interrogation measures”? Well, we can’t say, since that information is classified.

The executive order gives the Justice Department the power to determine that the methods being used by U.S. interrogators do not violate the Geneva Conventions. This is the same department that is headed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who, as White House counsel, signed off on the original legal opinion that many believe came close to condoning torture. Gonzales as the watchdog against torture is not the least bit comforting.

The order requires U.S. interrogators to obey the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners that bar “humiliating and degrading treatment” serious enough that any “reasonable person” would deem it “beyond the bounds of human decency.” It also bars “acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation ...”

The military will still be bound by the interrogation techniques laid down in the Army Field Manual.

The “enhanced” interrogations will be used on prisoners held incommunicado at the CIA’s secret overseas black sites, removed from oversight by the U.S. courts, the Red Cross and, most likely, Congress. The Bush administration essentially is saying to the American public: “Don’t ask what we’re doing in your name. Trust us.”

CIA Director Michael Hayden says the information yielded by the earlier “enhanced” interrogations of prisoners “has been irreplaceable.” Maybe so, but allegations of torture have done immeasurable damage to America’s reputation and standing. In our book, abandoning the higher moral ground is a high price tag.

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