Mukasey refuses to call waterboarding torture; the court grants another stay of execution.

Mukasey refuses to call waterboarding torture; the court grants another stay of execution.

Mukasey refuses to call waterboarding torture; the court grants another stay of execution.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Oct. 31 2007 6:13 AM

Tortured Answer

The Washington Postleads with attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey declaring that although waterboarding is "repugnant to me" he doesn't know whether the interrogation tactic is torture. Mukasey's refusal to classify waterboarding as torture in a letter to senators didn't please several lawmakers, many of whom had said his confirmation depended on his views on torture techniques. The New York Timesleads with the Supreme Court granting a last-minute stay of execution for a prisoner in Mississippi. It was seen as another sign that there is a de facto moratorium on all executions until the justices consider a lethal injection case next year.

The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how many fear that what will spark a conflict with Iran won't be the country's nuclear program but rather "an incident on the ground in Iraq." In order to prevent a possible backlash, U.S. officials are currently considering a plan to release some of the Iranian detainees in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal leads with word that the deaths of at least 36 U.S. troops this month in Iraq means October is on track to have the lowest number of American casualties since March 2006. USA Todayleads with a look at how more states and local governments are considering  sales tax increases in order to make up for a shortfall in revenue.

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At first it seemed Mukasey would be easily confirmed as the next attorney general, but now the outcome is less than clear and the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee has refused to schedule a vote on the nomination. All three Democratic senators running for president have said they won't vote in favor of Mukasey. In his four-page letter to senators, "Mukasey walked a tightrope," as the Post puts it, because he said he hasn't been briefed on classified programs and didn't want to say anything that would suggest CIA officers could be in "personal legal jeopardy" if they had used harsh interrogation techniques. The Post notes almost at the end of the story that waterboarding "has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military courts since the Spanish-American War."

It looks like the issue will be back at the forefront, so here's a reminder: "[W]aterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of drowning." So, is that torture? The papers often make it seem like it's debatable, but TP recommends an incredibly informative entry in the Small Wars Journal Blogby Malcolm Nance, who has lots of personal experience with the practice and states that "waterboarding is a torture technique. Period." Although all the papers say waterboarding involves "simulated drowning" Nance makes it clear that there's nothing simulated about it since "the lungs are actually filling with water." In short, "waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration. … When done right it is controlled death."

The stay of execution was considered particularly significant because the case in question was not strong since the defendant had been through many appeals and didn't bring up the method of execution until very recently. Interestingly enough, officials at the state prison said they were notified of the decision only 19 minutes before the execution was to take place and the inmate had already eaten his last meal.

With the constant presence of Iranians in Iraq, not to mention the 900-mile border, there are several events that could spark a conflict with Iran, including a massive bombing that would kill lots of U.S. troops. Meanwhile, more Pentagon officials are moving away from thinking that striking Iran's nuclear program would be a good idea. But the mere fact that U.S. troops sometimes detain and imprison Iranians in Iraq could be seen as a high-risk venture, particularly because any U.S. servicemember would fight back to avoid capture. In January, when U.S. troops detained five Iranians, they meant to capture a senior Revolutionary Guard leader, which "would have raised the ante pretty high with Iranians," an expert said. It seems strange that the LAT doesn't even give a nod to the idea that it could be the administration's goal to "raise the ante" in order to make a conflict with Iran seem inevitable.

Although there's been a sharp decline in attacks against coalition forces in Iraq, an official with the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers the reduction in attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians has been smaller. A GAO report released yesterday also said that reconstruction efforts have been mismanaged and are plagued with inefficiencies.

The NYT fronts news that the U.S. military will coordinate all State Department security convoys, which is part of an effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to tighten controls on contractors in Iraq. Even though the NYT says "Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug-of-war" it looks like this agreement doesn't go as far as some Pentagon officials wanted since they had said that all security contractors should be under the control of the U.S. military. Also yesterday, the Iraqi government approved draft legislation that would make all private security contractors subject to local law.

The NYT fronts a good piece of investigative reporting that looks into how many Chinese chemical companies that are exporting pharmaceutical ingredients are "neither certified nor inspected" by the government. These companies aren't in hiding and actually take part in large industry trade shows. Although the Chinese government has been aware of this loophole for more than a decade it has done little to stop the companies, sometimes to tragic consequences.

As the Democratic presidential hopefuls battled it out in their seventh debate last night (all the papers focus on how Sen. Hillary Clinton came under heavy attack from her rivals), the WP reports that it was all for nothing since we already know what the tickets will look like. A "statistically representative" poll of 355 witches revealed the candidates will be Hillary Clinton-Wesley Clark and Rudy Giuliani-Mike Huckabee. The poll was conducted by a group that seeks to "upgrade the perception of witches."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.