The Shell Game on Detainees and Interrogation

By Jack Goldsmith
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The revelation last weekend that the United States is increasingly using foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain terrorist suspects points up an uncomfortable truth about the war against Islamist terrorists. Demands to raise legal standards for terrorist suspects in one arena often lead to compensating tactics in another arena that leave suspects (and, sometimes, innocent civilians) worse off.

The U.S. rendition program -- which involves capturing suspected terrorists and whisking them to another country, outside judicial process -- began in the 1990s. The government was under pressure to take terrorists off the streets and learn what they knew. But it could not bring them to the United States because U.S. law made it too hard to effectively interrogate and incapacitate them here. So instead it shipped them to Egypt and other places to achieve the same end.

A similar phenomenon has occurred with the U.S. detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. The Gitmo facility was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because the Bush administration believed it needed to apply a different detention and interrogation regime than would be allowed at home. Over the past eight years, courts have exported U.S. legal standards to the island, and now President Obama has promised to close the detention facility.

But closing Guantanamo or bringing American justice there does not end the problem of terrorist detention. It simply causes the government to address the problem in different ways. A little-noticed consequence of elevating standards at Guantanamo is that the government has sent very few terrorist suspects there in recent years. Instead, it holds more terrorists -- without charge or trial, without habeas rights, and with less public scrutiny -- at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Or it renders them to countries where interrogation and incarceration standards are often even lower.

The cat-and-mouse game does not end there. As detentions at Bagram and traditional renditions have come under increasing legal and political scrutiny, the Bush and Obama administrations have relied more on other tactics. They have secured foreign intelligence services to do all the work -- capture, incarceration and interrogation -- for all but the highest-level detainees. And they have increasingly employed targeted killings, a tactic that eliminates the need to interrogate or incarcerate terrorists but at the cost of killing or maiming suspected terrorists and innocent civilians alike without notice or due process.

There are at least two problems with this general approach to incapacitating terrorists. First, it is not ideal for security. Sometimes it would be more useful for the United States to capture and interrogate a terrorist (if possible) than to kill him with a Predator drone. Often the United States could get better information if it, rather than another country, detained and interrogated a terrorist suspect. Detentions at Guantanamo are more secure than detentions in Bagram or in third countries.

The second problem is that terrorist suspects often end up in less favorable places. Detainees in Bagram have fewer rights than prisoners at Guantanamo, and many in Middle East and South Asian prisons have fewer yet. Likewise, most detainees would rather be in one of these detention facilities than be killed by a Predator drone. We congratulate ourselves when we raise legal standards for detainees, but in many respects all we are really doing is driving the terrorist incapacitation problem out of sight, to a place where terrorist suspects are treated worse.

It is tempting to say that we should end this pattern and raise standards everywhere. Perhaps we should extend habeas corpus globally, eliminate targeted killing and cease cooperating with intelligence services from countries that have poor human rights records. This sentiment, however, is unrealistic. The imperative to stop the terrorists is not going away. The government will find and exploit legal loopholes to ensure it can keep up our defenses.

This approach to detention policy reflects a sharp disjunction between the public's view of the terrorist threat and the government's. After nearly eight years without a follow-up attack, the public (or at least an influential sliver) is growing doubtful about the threat of terrorism and skeptical about using the lower-than-normal standards of wartime justice.

The government, however, sees the terrorist threat every day and is under enormous pressure to keep the country safe. When one of its approaches to terrorist incapacitation becomes too costly legally or politically, it shifts to others that raise fewer legal and political problems. This doesn't increase our safety or help the terrorists. But it does make us feel better about ourselves.

The writer, a professor at Harvard Law School and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, was an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration.

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