“I Won’t Outlaw the Torture We Don’t Practice”

The House passed a bill yesterday that would outlaw "extreme interrogation" techniques, which is another way of saying it decided to confirm the Geneva Conventions and ban torture as an acceptable state act of war. We'll get to one of … Read More

By / December 14, 2007

The House passed a bill yesterday that would outlaw "extreme interrogation" techniques, which is another way of saying it decided to confirm the Geneva Conventions and ban torture as an acceptable state act of war. We'll get to one of the occluded problems of the bill in a moment, but for now it's worth considering that the president, who repeatedly claims that "we don't torture," has already promised to veto the bill and has helpfully provided his reason for doing so:

The White House vowed to veto the measure. Limiting the CIA to interrogation techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual "would prevent the United States from conducting lawful interrogations of senior al Qaeda terrorists to obtain intelligence needed to protect Americans from attack," the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

As it happens, the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation cites the Geneva Conventions in Appendix J; it not only states that the U.S. is a party to the 1949 covenant but it reaffirms the explicit contents of that covenant that ought to apply in our conduct of war. The following are cited as being prohibited:

  • violence to life and person, in particular, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
  • outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

Chapter 1, the Principles of Interrogation, states:

The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. However, the use of force is not to be confused with psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and noncoercive ruses used by the interrogator in questioning hesitant or uncooperative sources.

The psychological techniques and principles outlined should neither be confused with, nor construed to be synonymous with, unauthorized techniques such as brainwashing, mental torture, or any other form of mental coercion to include drugs. These techniques and principles are intended to serve as guides in obtaining the willing cooperation of a source. The absence of threats in interrogation is intentional, as their enforcement and use normally constitute violations of international law and may result in prosecution under the UCMJ.

Additionally, the inability to carry out a threat of violence or force renders an interrogator ineffective should the source challenge the threat. Consequently, from both legal and moral viewpoints, the restrictions established by international law, agreements, and customs render threats of force, violence, and deprivation useless as interrogation techniques.

As for permissible interrogation methods involving physical contact with the subject, here's what Chapter 3 has to say:

The successful application of approach techniques eventually induces the source to willingly provide accurate intelligence information to the interrogator. The term "willingly" refers to the source answering the interrogator's questions, not necessarily his cooperation. The source may or may not be aware that he is actually providing the interrogator with information about enemy forces. Some approaches may be complete when the source begins to answer questions. Others may have to be constantly maintained or reinforced throughout the interrogation. The techniques used in an approach can best be defined as a series of events, not just verbal conversation between the interrogator and the source. The exploitation of the source's emotion can be either harsh or gentle in application (hand and body movements, actual physical contact such as a hand on the shoulder for reassurance, or even silence are all useful techniques that the interrogator may have to bring into play).

So here are the too-constrictive rules to which that the president does not wish to hold the nation's notorious spy agency. Whether or not it's true, as CIA Director Michael Hayden maintains, that fewer than 100 suspects have been interrogated since 2002, whether or not Abu Zubaydah has copped to Al Qaeda cronies and plots under torturous interrogation methods, and whether or not you agree that the United States ought to continue to be a party to the "outmoded" and "quaint" Geneva Conventions — it's quite clear that, at the very minimum, "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment" are seen as allowable by this administration. Just so we're clear on that. Let there be no euphemisms.

As for what's problematic in the bill, it:

blocks spending 70 percent of the intelligence budget until the House and Senate intelligence committees are briefed on Israel’s Sept. 6 air strike on an alleged nuclear site in Syria.

Mooring 70% of the intelligence budget to the full skinny on military operations undertaken by a foreign government against another is both bizarre and stupid. This is especially true in light of the fact that, as Michael Young reported and I blogged earlier, the Congress hardly cares what Syria does anymore, and our being able to even find out is now hostage to Israel's willingness to share what it knows. Yet what it knows about Iran, we couldn't give a good damn about.

Our last line of defense, ladies and gentlemen.

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