WASHINGTON — With its larger-than-life characters and head-spinning plot twists, the presidential campaign is easily the best reality show on television: Will Barack Obama find a way to connect with Latino voters? Can John McCain somehow mollify all those angry conservatives? Could Hillary Clinton, after raising more than $100 million, run out of money?

The drama is so compelling that it’s easy to lose sight of why this election is so important. This week, George W. Bush reminded us how grievously he has wounded our nation’s ideals, values and standing in the world — and how big a challenge the next president will face in repairing the damage.

On Tuesday, authorized by the White House, CIA Director Michael Hayden gave Congress the fullest account so far of the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which the administration calls an “interrogation technique” but which international agreements — and plain English — call torture.

Think about that. Did you ever imagine that we would have a president who uses legalistic euphemisms and craven rationalizations to justify strapping prisoners down and subjecting them to simulated drowning? A president who claims the right to use waterboarding, and God knows what other “techniques,” in the future if he wants?

This is a moral outrage, people. At least, it should be. There simply cannot be any kind of pro-and-con debate over the use of torture — whatever anodyne phrase you hide it behind — by agents of the United States government on persons in custody. Torture is not debatable. It is forbidden by U.S. and international law. It is a vile implement used by tinhorn despots, not by the elected leaders of great democracies.

Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee that waterboarding was used on captured al-Qaida leaders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaidah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. All, I am confident, are bad people who wish to do great harm to the United States. But torture, in addition to being morally reprehensible, yields unreliable information — people will say basically anything they think their interrogators want to hear, anything that will make the torture stop.

I’m sure the CIA extracted some truth as a result of these waterboarding sessions. But I’m also sure the questioners came away with falsehoods, exaggerations and fantasies. I believe the many professional interrogators who say there are better ways of getting useful information out of uncooperative subjects.

Is waterboarding really torture? In describing the practice, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said this recently to The New Yorker: “If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

McConnell subsequently clarified his remarks, maintaining that “the United States does not engage in torture. We do use enhanced interrogation techniques.”

That’s what this whole sickening exercise in semantics is about: covering the administration’s backside. Waterboarding has been around for a long time, and it has always been considered torture. If the practice were legal, the CIA wouldn’t have destroyed its videotapes of waterboarding sessions. CIA officials worried at the time about possible legal exposure, not just for the agents who did the waterboarding but for the whole chain of command.

That chain begins at the White House, where Bush takes the position that waterboarding is perfectly legal, even though it is currently banned, and that it could be used again if deemed necessary. To acknowledge the truth would be to admit that crimes were committed; those crimes would have to be investigated, the perpetrators would have to be charged, and, yes, people might have to go to jail — unless Bush gives absolution, as he leaves office, in the form of a pardon.

Both of the leading Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, pledge to renew our government’s absolute prohibition against torture. So does the Republican front-runner, McCain, who has been much more forthright on the issue than his GOP opponents. McCain experienced torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; he is passionate about this issue and knows it is a matter of right and wrong, with no gray area between.

On torture and all the other excesses — arbitrary detention, electronic surveillance, Guantanamo — the next president should feel obliged to give a full accounting of the Bush administration’s disgraceful transgressions. Then he or she will begin the task of assuring the world that such things will not happen again.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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