Debating Interrogation Policy: The Need For Transparency

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 22, 2009

When it comes to the issue of interrogation, I am quite sensitive to, and insistent on the need for the United States not to drift into the realm of torture. To be sure, there are practices some find to constitute torture, that I take a less harsh view of. The analogies to a certain scene from 1984 notwithstanding, I do not think that placing a caterpillar in a box along with a detainee, even though the detainee has an irrational fear of insects and even though the detainee has falsely been told that the caterpillar is a stinging insect, constitutes torture. To argue otherwise would be to rob the definition of torture of any objectivity, to define just about everything unpleasant–and therefore, in the end, nothing at all–as torture. By contrast, I have no problem accepting the argument that waterboarding–by all accounts, a terrifying experience to undergo–constitutes torture.

I don’t think that the lawyers who wrote the now-famous interrogation memos were evil people, or even incompetent ones, but I disagree heatedly with certain points of the analysis. My thoughts on the crafting of interrogation policy closely mirror those of Jack Goldsmith, who to my mind, took the most intellectually honest and moral stance regarding interrogation policy, and other anti-terror measures (the book, by the way, reveals an author with a quite conservative cast of mind, one which other conservatives should feel comfortable elevating to a place like the United States Supreme Court. Do not be fooled by some of the politically self-serving reviews found on the Amazon page). And while I disagree with some of the sweeping claims made by Philip Zelikow, I am sympathetic to the general thrust of his argument, and believe that it ought to be taken quite seriously.

At the same time, when we deal with interrogation policy, we are dealing with matters of national security, and therefore, life and death. One is aware of Nietzsche’s maxim: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This maxim ought to guide the crafting and implementation of interrogation policy. But it does not detract from the need to ensure that we know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to methods of interrogation. By educating ourselves fully, we will be better able to calibrate interrogation procedures to get the maximum amount of information from a detainee, while at the same time, allowing us to refrain from torture.

This makes the proliferation of knowledge through transparency crucial in the debate over interrogation policy. However, when it comes to interrogation policy, the Obama Administration has decided to be as opaque as it usually is on other policy issues:

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush administration legal memos authorizing the use of interrogation methods that the Obama White House has deemed to be illegal torture. Among other things, the Bush administration memos revealed that two captured Qaeda operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as waterboarding a total of 266 times.

Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”

A spokeswoman for Admiral Blair said the lines were cut in the normal editing process of shortening an internal memo into a media statement emphasizing his concern that the public understand the context of the decisions made in the past and the fact that they followed legal orders.

(Emphasis mine.) Raise your hand if you believe the anodyne excuse given in that last paragraph. Admiral Blair sought to explain that “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” as a way of downplaying the value of the information obtained through the Bush Administration’s interrogation methods, but of course, the only way we will be unable to determine the answers to such questions is if the Obama Administration refuses to be transparent with information concerning what secrets the use of Bush Administration interrogation procedures gleaned.

The Obama Administration sought to cover up any and all potentially palliative effects of the Bush Administration’s interrogation procedures. It didn’t have to. It could have released that information in a full a frank fashion, and then, the President could have sought to persuade us that there are other, better ways of obtaining that information, methods that would not come close to crossing the line between valid interrogation policies on one hand, and torture on the other. It could have engaged in a public debate over the value and validity of the information itself. It could have won points and respect by treating the arguments behind the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies fairly, while still explaining to the American people, in a manner that evinces respect for the intelligence of the American people, why the Obama Administration believes that those policies were wrong.

But no. Instead, the Obama Administration tried to cover up any findings that did not fit in with its preconceived notions on interrogation policy.

How we are supposed to learn anything from the Administration’s course of action on this issue, and how we are supposed to put that learning into practice, is anyone’s guess. But by failing the test of transparency yet again, the Obama Administration inflicted yet another setback to the ongoing effort to craft a smart, humane, and effective program of interrogating terrorist suspects.

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