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Statement of Mark David Agrast

This morning the U.S. Senate adopted an amendment by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois that reaffirms the American commitment to refrain from engaging in torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Senator Durbin and his colleagues deserve the thanks of every American for restating what until recently the entire world could confidently affirm: that this nation, founded on the principles of human dignity and the rule of law, takes seriously its obligation to respect the most fundamental of human rights.

It is regrettable that such a restatement should have been necessary. U.S. governments of both parties have considered themselves bound by treaties, statutes, and military regulations that prohibit the mistreatment of captives, recognizing that such acts represent serious violations of both national and international law.

Unfortunately, documents have recently come to light that suggest that the current administration takes a different view. One memorandum produced by the Department of Justice argues that the prohibitions on torture apply only to "the most extreme acts" and that their enforcement may even be an unconstitutional infringement of the president's powers as commander-in-chief.

It remains to be determined to what extent the egregious misconduct at Abu Ghraib and other military detention facilities was a product of this kind of thinking. We do know that by concocting legal rationalizations for egregious and illegal acts, the administration does a disservice not only to those who have suffered abuse at its hands, but to the brave young Americans serving abroad. They depend for their safety on the international laws which the U.S. played so profound a role in creating and now so cavalierly casts aside.

Mark David Agrast is the senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress.

Read Durbin's floor statement on the amendment.

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