Monday, September 18, 2006

The Politics of Torture; Lost amid the legal wrangling over how to interrogate detainees are the techniques used in the war on terror.

The Politics of Torture
Lost amid the legal wrangling over how to interrogate detainees are the techniques used in the war on terror.
By Michael Hirsh and Mark Hosenball

Sept. 25, 2006 issue - Waterboarding, which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, is an interrogation method that involves strapping a prisoner face up onto a table and pouring water into his nose. The idea is to create the sensation of drowning so that the panicked prisoner will talk. According to The New York Times, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded by the CIA. He eventually confessed what President Bush described last Friday as "information about terrorist plans we couldn't get anywhere else." Neither Bush nor any other administration official has acknowledged, on the record, the use of waterboarding or any other specific CIA method. But at a White House news conference, Bush passionately defended the once secret CIA interrogation program involving such "alternative" techniques as "vital."

The question is whether waterboarding, however effective, is torture—and whether Americans ought to be doing such things at all. Some leading Republican senators, John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham, believe it should be clearly banned under new legislation. The Bush administration has proposed its own bill seeking to redefine the Geneva Conventions—which set out the rules of war—in order to preserve the CIA's right to use some harsher methods. But even Bush's former secretary of State, Colin Powell, publicly questioned last week whether the administration's stance might lead the world to "doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." And recently Bush administration officials, in private negotiations with the Senate, have agreed to drop waterboarding from a list of approved CIA interrogation techniques, according to a Senate source involved in the dispute. (He, like the other administration officials and congressional sources quoted in this story, asked not to be identified owing to the sensitivity of the negotiations over classified information.)

The Bush administration wants to maintain seven other approved CIA interrogation methods, however, for use against suspected high-level terrorists, according to one congressional source and a lawyer involved in the negotiations. A senior administration official said he could not discuss what CIA methods are still being considered. But the official added that "one should not assume all techniques used previously will be used in the future." He also noted that the new U.S. Army field manual bans waterboarding. Two other sources, one a U.S. legislator and the other a counterterrorism official, told NEWSWEEK that the total number of CIA detainees subjected to the "most rigorous" interrogation techniques was less than five. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the only one among them whose identity has been acknowledged by former government officials.

The GOP's intraparty dispute centers on a single provision of the Geneva Conventions. The president has criticized a Supreme Court decision last June that ruled all suspected terrorists, even those detained secretly by the CIA, are protected under Geneva's Common Article 3, which forbids "outrages upon personal dignity" and "cruel treatment."

Bush says that, under such vague rules, CIA professionals will not know if the interrogation techniques they are using are legal, and they could be vulnerable to war crimes prosecution. He's proposing a new law that will more narrowly define Common Article 3 to mean only "serious" violations. McCain and the other GOP senators have indicated they would be willing to amend domestic U.S. law, especially the War Crimes Act, to permit at least some "enhanced" CIA techniques. They are also willing to pass legislation that would deny many rights to detainees at Guantánamo Bay and allow them to be held indefinitely. But the senators, who appear to have the support of a majority of their colleagues, want to keep the Geneva restriction broadly defined in order to protect U.S. troops abroad. "What is billed [by Bush] as 'clarifying' our treaty obligations will be seen as 'withdrawing' from the treaty obligations," Graham said. "It will set precedent, which could come back to haunt us."

Neither administration nor congressional sources would describe the other interrogation methods in dispute. As NEWSWEEK has previously reported, various CIA techniques such as open-handed slapping were first discussed in Alberto Gonzales's office in 2002 before the then White House Counsel became attorney general. Scott Horton, a New York City Bar Association lawyer who has advised the Senate on the legislation, says Capitol Hill aides have told him that the CIA has sought to use the following techniques: (1) induced hypothermia; (2) long periods of forced standing; (3) sleep deprivation; (4) the "attention grab" (the forceful seizing of a suspect's shirt); (5) the "attention slap"; (6) the "belly slap"; and (7) sound and light manipulation. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for the group Human Rights Watch, says that Hill sources working on the legislation have described the same list to him.

Some human-rights activists view only the first two methods, hypothermia and forced standing, as outright torture. But Malinowski said there is a reason why U.S. military interrogation manuals consistently ban physical abuse of any kind. "The Army's experience has taught them that once you allow physical contact once, even if it's mild, it's very difficult to prevent much more violent physical contact," he said.

CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told agency personnel last week in an e-mail that he was not asking for a "CIA carve-out"—in other words, an exception for CIA interrogators. But critics say the administration is trying to achieve just that.

With Michael Isikoff in Washington