When the Senate voted this week to bring America’s chain of military prison camps under the rule of law, President Bush threatened a veto. The White House explained his objections by saying the measure would bind the government’s hands. Yes, exactly. The rules would finally bind military prisons to democratic values and the standards of behavior recognized by every other civilized nation. They would bind the government to a code of conduct that will help protect those in the nation’s uniform.

The measure would ban ”cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of prisoners held by the military — which, by the way, is already against American law and a longstanding treaty. Mr. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are about the only ones left who want to defend the justness and practical value of the abhorrent practices introduced at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and then exported to Abu Ghraib. Ninety senators voted for the new law, including 46 Republicans — even Bill Frist, the majority leader, who yanked the measure from the floor last summer.

More than two dozen retired senior military officers endorsed it, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili and Colin Powell. Generals know that turning American servicemen and servicewomen into torturers endangers Americans captured on the battlefield. Senator John McCain, the primary sponsor of the legislation, was among the Americans tortured by North Vietnamese jailers. He said that ”Every one of us — every single one of us — knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies.”

The arguments made by the handful of senators still loyal to Mr. Bush on this issue were sadly comical. Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, argued that requiring American troops to follow their own field manual was not practical in the so-called war on terror. This is the central myth behind the administration’s policies on prisoners, that the 9/11 attacks required a review of the rules and justified changing them to allow the torture of suspected terrorists. No serious person with experience in this field believes that, only because torture yields worthless information and false confessions.

Not only is the Bush administration trying to block the Senate’s efforts to finally fix this enormous problem, but it continues to block any serious investigation of the abuse, torture and murder of prisoners.

The senators who voted for the law on the humane treatment of prisoners should also lend their backing to another measure that would create a truly bipartisan and independent commission, armed with subpoena power, to investigate the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and other military detention camps — like the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Republican majority in the House should also pass the new law on interrogations — then override Mr. Bush if he has the bad judgment to veto it.

Copyright 2005 New York Times. All rights reserved.

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