Interrogate This
A tortured narrative.


The release of another previously classified Justice Department memo on the interrogation of terrorists (here and here) has reignited the specious “torture narrative,” propounded gleefully by Bush-administration critics. The narrative holds that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was the direct and even intended consequence of a set of executive-branch legal opinions on the status of terrorist detainees and the president’s wartime authority. The New York Times announced in an April 4 editorial that the latest declassified memo leaves no doubt that the “abuse of prisoners” was “calculated policy” rather than “rogue acts.” “When the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, we were told these were the depraved public actions of a few soldiers,” the editorial concludes. “The Yoo memo makes it chillingly apparent that senior officials authorized unspeakable acts.”

Besides smearing the Bush administration, the torture narrative aims to discredit the use of stress-interrogation techniques by equating such techniques with torture. The persuasiveness of this equation rests on one crucial condition: ignorance of the actual techniques that the Pentagon approved for use on captured terrorist suspects. Those techniques, designed to overcome the detainees’ fierce resistance to traditional interrogation methods, had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib sadism and are light years from torture. Nor do they depend on the controversial claims about executive power in this latest DOJ memo and others like it. Nevertheless, thanks to unimpeded agitation by rights activists and administration opponents, the use of stress techniques is now wholly discredited, despite their reported efficacy and necessity.

The newly released memo was written in March 2003 by the Left’s favorite pariah, then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, of DOJ’s elite Office of Legal Counsel. (The New York Times editorial on the memo misidentifies Yoo as a “Pentagon lawyer.”) Like much of Yoo’s work for Justice, the March memo reaches breathtakingly broad conclusions about the president’s military authority.

Yoo argues that Congress may not regulate the commander-in-chief’s wartime power. Thus, wartime interrogations of enemy combatants held abroad are not governed by domestic criminal or constitutional law. Military interrogations are covered by the Convention Against Torture, but the president may override the Convention if doing so is necessary to defend the nation against attack.

Yoo’s analysis was likely driven by a felt need to carve out the largest possible space for executive action in what looked like a struggle for national survival, as well as by a more abstract commitment to the theory of unfettered executive discretion. Those twin impulses resulted in language that overshot the immediate circumstances confronting the president.

The seven additional interrogation methods that the Secretary of Defense authorized in April 2003 for use on resistant detainees at Guantanamo Bay, relying in part on Yoo’s March 14 memo, fell far short of the outer boundaries of presidential power. They did not violate any laws against torture or criminal assault. Since the proponents of the torture narrative work so hard to keep those methods (since withdrawn) out of the public eye, it is worth reprinting them in full:

–Change of Scenery Up: Removing the detainee from the standard interrogation setting (generally to a location more pleasant, but no worse).

–Change of Scenery Down: Removing the detainee from the standard interrogation setting and placing him in a setting that may be less comfortable; would not constitute a substantial change in environmental quality.

–Dietary Manipulation: Changing the Diet of a detainee; no intended deprivation of food or water; no adverse medical or cultural effect and without intent to deprive subject of food or water, e.g., hot rations to MREs [meals ready to eat].

–Environmental Manipulation: Altering the environment to create moderate discomfort (e.g., adjusting temperature or introducing an unpleasant smell). Conditions would not be such that they would injure the detainee. Detainee would be accompanied by interrogator at all times.

–Sleep Adjustment: Adjusting the sleeping times of the detainee (e.g., reversing sleep cycles from night to day.) This technique is NOT sleep deprivation.

–False Flag: Convincing the detainee that individuals from a country other than the United States are interrogating him.

–Isolation: Isolating the detainee from other detainees while still complying with basic standards of treatment. [Caution: The use of isolation as an interrogation technique requires detailed implementation instructions, including specific guidelines regarding the length of isolation, medical and psychological review, and approval for extension of the length of isolation by the appropriate chain of command. This technique is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days. Those nations that believe detainees are subject to POW protections may view use of this technique as inconsistent with the requirements of Geneva III.]

The foregoing guidelines insist that interrogators take care to avoid inflicting any injury on a detainee. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated that “U.S. Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely, and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.” All interrogation methods — whether conventional or supplementary — required a specific interrogation plan, the presence or availability of qualified medical personnel, appropriate supervision, and senior approval.