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An Alternative Set of Interrogation Procedures


Monday, Sep. 11, 2006

A necessary supplement to President George Bush's speech last week on the CIA's secret detention program is contained in John le Carré's new novel. Called The Mission Song, the novel includes an extended description of torture that takes up several pages of text.

President Bush spared the nation such excruciating details. He spoke vaguely and euphemistically of an "alternative set of [interrogation] procedures" - "tough" and "necessary" tactics that made uncooperative detainees talk.

Although he was conspicuously reticent about the methods used, he spoke at length about the results. In defending the CIA's approach to interrogation, he gave a detailed (and probably exaggerated) listing of detainees captured, testimonies obtained, and terror plots foiled.

Anyone familiar with the methods that the CIA has been employing, knows that Bush defended torture. Numerous intelligence officials have leaked information about abusive tactics to the media, and former CIA detainees like German citizen Khalid el-Masri have spoken out about them.

It was an ugly speech, and one made at a profoundly opportunistic moment. Most cynically of all, perhaps, was that the President justified his administration's use of "alternative" methods as part of a "struggle for freedom and liberty." We're "fighting for the cause of humanity," he reminded his audience at the speech's end, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction between means and ends.

Torturous Methods

President Bush was able to deny that the U.S. uses torture because his working definition of the term is so indefensibly narrow. Although the Administration did finally repudiate its 2002 claim that only interrogation methods that caused pain equivalent to that associated with organ failure constitute torture, it still defends methods that cause severe pain.

Last year, for example, former CIA director Porter Goss endorsed water-boarding, a form of mock execution in which the victim feels he is drowning. Goss called it a "professional interrogation technique," implicitly lending support to leaked allegations that the CIA has subjected a number of detainees to the practice.

Bush did not mention water-boarding in his speech, nor did he mention any other specific abusive practice. He explained that if he were to do so, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning. But this explanation is nonsense: The tactics are known and the terrorists already expect them.

What probably kept him quiet about the specifics was either the political risk of going too far, or - one hopes -- a modicum of propriety. It is one thing to consider abuse in an abstract and euphemistic way, but another thing to defend its specific manifestations -- the brutality, the pain, and the damage to the human spirit. Few Americans would feel proud if they had to witness the interrogations that took place at secret CIA prisons; even many veteran CIA agents were appalled.

But by leaving the details unsaid, Bush omitted a crucial part of the story. At least when law professor Alan Dershowitz defended torture, he had the honesty to describe exactly what he was proposing (a sterilized needle under the fingernails was his favored technique).

President Bush wants it both ways: to justify torture, and to pretend that he's not.

The President's Draft Legislation

Besides defending past CIA practices, President Bush's speech had very specific ends. He closed his address by pressing for legislation that would reinstate the military commissions struck down by the Supreme Court, and decriminalize forms of abusive treatment of detainees.

The details of the draft legislation he is proposing may seem tedious, but the end result is of enormous concern. Not satisfied with upending the rules by itself, the Administration now (spurred by Supreme Court losses) wants Congress to help it.

But to call the tribunals that Bush is advocating "military commissions" is nearly as euphemistic as calling torture "alternative procedures." Military lawyers have disowned them, and penal experts all over the world have expressed dismay.

Whatever the president might argue, torture and kangaroo courts are not going to solve the problem of terrorism.

Joanne Mariner is the terrorism and counterterrorism director of Human Rights Watch. She would like to direct readers who are concerned about the abusive and counterproductive impact of the Administration's counterterrorism policies to Human Rights Watch's website.

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