Update: The Torture Debate
The news that the new version of the Army Field Manual will include a secret 10-page list of interrogation methods (including examples of what methods are acceptable under what circumstances) isn't going over well among supporters of the McCain Amendment. Some are understandably concerned that this is an attempt to undermine the amendment, which would require interrogations of prisoners held abroad to be subject to the same rules as interrogations conducted on U.S. soil.
Opponents argue that McCain himself undermines the amendment by his acknowledgment that there are circumstances in which using prohibited techniques on prisoners might be necessary. (More on that below.)
What's really at issue here is definitions. Clarity is severely lacking in rules on interrogation. In an online discussion today, former JAG Victor Hansen wrote, "I think there is a dangerous perception problem if more than one set of rules are even in existence. In spite of the best efforts by the senior leadership at Abu Ghraib, confusion and contradiction still existed."
McCain's amendment, which President Bush today agreed to support, would solve this problem insofar as it would make the Army Field Manual the official rulebook for interrogations. But even if there's only one set of rules, that's not terribly helpful if those rules aren't crystal clear.
The amendment does not clarify what constitutes cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment, or what precisely crosses the line into torture, although part of the compromise with the president is that specific procedures for interrogations will be added to the Field Manual. Does the 10-page addendum offer more clarity? It sounds like it does. According to the New York Times:
The addendum provides dozens of examples and goes into exacting detail on what procedures may or may not be used, and in what circumstances. Army interrogators have never had a set of such specific guidelines that would help teach them how to walk right up to the line between legal and illegal interrogations.
Trouble is, we have no way of knowing where those lines are being drawn, and it is unacceptable for the people of the United States to be kept in the dark about any abuses that may be permitted in our name.
Besides, the newly revised Army Field Manual, due to come out any day, will offer more specific guidelines on interrogations, the Times reports.
The new manual, the first revision in 13 years, will specifically prohibit practices like stripping prisoners, keeping them in stressful positions for a long time, imposing dietary restrictions, employing police dogs to intimidate prisoners and using sleep deprivation as a tool to get them to talk, Army officials said. In that regard, it imposes new restrictions on what interrogators are allowed to do.
The question then becomes, is the Field Manual too restrictive, as Vice President Cheney insists? Even McCain himself has said that when a president faces the most extreme of circumstances -- the "ticking bomb scenario," if you will -- "You do what you have to do." But, he added, "you take responsibility for it."
Does this admission make McCain's amendment a bit hypocritical, given that he expects the law will be broken under certain circumstances? Is it better to have a law and just quietly assume that under extraordinary circumstances it would be broken by the executive/CIA? Or is it better to have a built-in exception (Cheney tried to exempt the CIA from the rules), but run the risk of further damage to the image of morality that the U.S. wants to project?
An excellent National Review editorial has an answer that would create a mechanism for the president to "do what [he has] to do" while also ensuring that he takes responsibility for it, as McCain says must happen. The NRO editorial proposes that presidential authorization be required to use harsher techniques that border on torture, like waterboarding. The power would be there for extraordinary circumstances, while also ensuring that the president can be held accountable for the decision.
The editorial also addresses the problem of definitions, arguing that instead of offering vague platitudes, Congress needs to delve into each specific method and decide which ones can be legally used on detainees not considered prisoners of war and which ones should be prohibited.
Coming up with clear, unambiguous guidelines is easier said than done, of course, as it seems that no one -- including the Attorney General of the United States -- is able (or willing) to define precisely what constitutes torture. (For Gonzales's non-answer to the simple request that he "please define 'torture'," go here and scroll about halfway down.)
Still, it seems to me that the National Review is on to something here. Having the ambiguities cleared up by Congress would be an open process, and it forces our representatives to confront this issue head on, piece by piece. (That's what an interrogator would have to do, except he'd have to do it on the spur of the moment, while Congress has the luxury of extended debate.) Why is Congress there, if not to deliberate and come to conclusions on the toughest decisions facing the country?
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By Emily Messner |
December 15, 2005; 2:33 PM ET
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