Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A day of revelations

I didn't capitalize the "R" in the title, but perhaps I should have. Let's start at the top.

The Pentagon finally released its new interrogation field manual, and it is a Good Thing.

Forced nudity, hooding, using dogs, conducting mock executions or simulated drownings were among eight abusive interrogation practices banned under new rules unveiled by the U.S. military on Wednesday....

The manual explicitly prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But it keeps 16 long-standing interrogation techniques and adds three new ones, said Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

We'll get to those in a minute. What is most heartening is this acknowledgement:

"No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices," he said. Intelligence obtained under duress, he added, would have "questionable credibility" and do more harm than good when the abuse inevitably became public.

This is good. But as we'll see below, the administration does not actually believe that.

So what is allowed?

Practices still permitted include rewarding detainees for cooperation, flattery and instilling fear. Two of the new techniques were the use of a good-cop, bad-cop approach and allowing interrogators to portray themselves as someone other than a U.S. interrogator.

A third new technique, called "separation," can be used only on detainees deemed "enemy combatants" to keep them away from one another, and only with high-level military approval.

No real issues there. Although the FBI has complained in the past about interrogators posing as FBI agents. And posing as lawyers or journalists can cause other problems.

Nonetheless, I am well pleased. It may have taken years of mounting criticism and a Supreme Court ruling to make it happen, but it has happened. Now perhaps the stain of torture can be removed from the military's reputation.

The downside is that these rules don't apply to the CIA. And that's particularly relevant, because President Bush acknowledged today that the spy agency does, indeed, operate a network of secret prisons for "high-value" detainees -- the final 14 of whom have now been transferred to Gitmo for trial.

The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of the detainees here.

I admit to being torn on this one. Don't get me wrong; we shouldn't be routinely torturing people or operating prisons outside the reach of the law. But my main objection to mistreating prisoners stems from the fact that we did so before proving that the detainee was, in fact, a terrorist, and that we were denying basic rights to a wide swath of people.

But in the case of known high-ranking terrorists, different rules may apply. If we were to capture bin Laden, I would not object to harshly interrogating him to learn of associates and active plots.

So I'm okay in principle with the idea of establishing a different set of rules for a very, very, VERY small number of high-value prisoners. But those rules should be clearly established by Congress, in play for a limited time and conducted under close scrutiny and oversight from higher officials. They should not occur in secret prisons beyond the reach of public accountability.

Speaking of public accountability, Bush also asked Congress to approve his plan for military tribunals. It contains no serious concessions to the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down his previous plan; he's asking Congress to rubber-stamp the plan he came up with. This includes using secret evidence that defendants cannot see, as well as evidence obtained through coercive interrogations.

That's a bad idea. Try and convict them in a fair trial, or not at all. If they're a terrorist, throw away the key. But prove it first.

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