IN ASKING Congress to legalize the CIA's secret prison program last year, President Bush claimed that the "alternative procedures" adopted for the interrogation of terrorism suspects "were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations." In fact, as is made clear in a newly declassified report by the Defense Department's deputy inspector general for intelligence, the administration did not so much design as reverse-engineer its methods. The guiding authority was not the Constitution but the practices of secret police in places such as the former Soviet Union.
Techniques such as prolonged sleep deprivation, exposure to temperature extremes and death threats were taught to interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2002 and to special Army teams in Iraq a year later by military trainers whose normal duty was to school U.S. soldiers on resisting torture in the event they were captured by a lawless regime. No studies were done to determine whether the methods were effective or whether other interrogation practices might get better results. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, according to the report, "replicate[s] harsh conditions that the [U.S.] Service member might encounter if they are held by forces that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions. . . . The SERE expertise lies in training personnel how to respond [to] and resist interrogations -- not in how to conduct interrogations." Yet many of the methods used on "high-value" detainees in both Guantanamo and Iraq came from SERE.
Mr. Bush and other administration officials argue that those methods got results from such al-Qaeda prisoners as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a claim that cannot be independently verified because the records of those interrogations have been kept secret. What administration officials don't mention is that at least two top prisoners, Mohamed Qatani and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, are now known to have provided false information to interrogators after being tortured -- in Mr. al-Libi's case, by Egyptian jailers. Moreover, an extensive report by the Intelligence Science Board, sponsored by the Pentagon, concluded that there is no scientific evidence to back up the administration's contention that the techniques it adopted are effective. In fact, the intelligence experts concluded that some painful and coercive treatment could prevent interrogators from getting good information.
What makes these conclusions particularly significant is that the administration is preparing an executive order that would set new rules for the CIA's "alternative procedures," under the terms of the flawed legislation that Congress approved last fall. According to a report this week in the New York Times, the order is near completion and would reauthorize some of the harsh methods. If so, Mr. Bush will act in contravention of his administration's own expert advisers and the military investigators who showed how the techniques of totalitarians were recklessly adopted by Americans. Congress, which was wrong to hand the president the authority to bend the Geneva Conventions, ought to intervene to prevent further abuse.