A Return to Abuse

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

FOR MOST of the past two years, a CIA interrogation program that once subjected foreign detainees to abuses that most of the world regards as torture has been inactive. During much of that time, al-Qaeda militants have been held in secret CIA prisons, but the agency stopped using techniques such as simulated drowning, sleep deprivation and painful stress positions because of congressional legislation banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment and a subsequent Supreme Court decision applying certain protections of the Geneva Conventions to all detainees.

Last week, after a prolonged debate among his advisers, President Bush issued an executive order that nominally reaffirms that CIA detainees will be covered by Geneva's Common Article 3 and thus be protected from torture or "humiliating and degrading" treatment. But the result may be the return by the CIA to methods that most people, including most of the world's democracies, regard as improper and illegal under international law -- and to a new threat to Americans captured by hostile governments.

The turnabout comes because of Mr. Bush's success in winning Congress's election-eve approval last year of legislation governing the detention and trial of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere abroad. The bill gave the president the authority to determine how the United States will interpret the Geneva protections. The Defense Department -- where most uniformed officers have long opposed the Bush administration's "enhanced" interrogation techniques -- had already adopted and made public a code of conduct for military interrogators that has won praise from human rights advocates, in part because it expressly bans a number of abusive practices.

Mr. Bush's order authorizes the CIA to adopt a separate and secret set of methods. In theory, the agency's methods will also conform to Geneva; in practice, administration lawyers, who have used loopholes and far-fetched reasoning to justify torture in the past, will have the leeway to justify abuses again. While Mr. Bush's order outlaws sexual humiliation and denigration of religion, and administration officials privately say simulated drowning, or "waterboarding," is now out of bounds, the presidential order is silent about sleep deprivation, stress positions and other methods used by the CIA in the past.

Administration officials argue -- without offering evidence -- that harsh methods are needed to gain intelligence from hardened al-Qaeda operatives. In fact, studies of interrogations and the military's experience show the opposite -- that torture does not produce reliable information. Officials also claim that the CIA's methods, unlike the Army's interrogation manual, must be kept secret so that detainees will not know what they might face. Yet any abusive technique that U.S. interrogators use is likely to become publicly known, as was the case with waterboarding. When that happens, hostile governments will acquire a valuable weapon: cruel treatment they will be able to use on captured Americans, treatment that they will claim conforms to the Geneva Conventions -- on the authority of Mr. Bush.

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