Congress has declared that the U.S. will not use torture techniques. Congress may go one step further, with legislation that would require all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies to abide by the Army Field Manual’s prohibition against waterboarding. That’s sound policy and the right message to send to the rest of the world.

But the Constitution is not a suicide pact, as Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote nearly half a century ago. It is possible that a president under the most extreme circumstances would authorize extraordinary steps to protect the nation.

Let me see if I can summarize: The White House stonewalled on torture for months until it very recently admitted that three detainees were waterboarded under what it claims were extenuating circumstances. The official stance is that it’s illegal, but it’s not because we really, really had to. The Tribune editorial quoted above says, basically:

(1) Yeah, waterboarding should definitely be illegal and we shouldn’t do it

(2) Except if we really have to

(3) But the White House “created some confusion that helps to perpetuate the issue” by saying (1) and (2) are both true

(4) And it sucks that “some members of Congress refuse to let this matter rest,” which is how we figured out (1) and (2) from (3).

People may differ on (1) and (2), but I’m kind of amazed that the Tribune editorial writers are taking such a strong and morally superior stand against their own point.

It also might have been worth mentioning that torture tends to come back and bite you in the ass when you go to court and try to get evidence obtained by it past the judge in a death penalty case. You’d think that problem would be familiar to a group of Chicago journalists.