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Army Field Manual and “Verbal Trickery”


Andrew Sullivan says it’s unfair to accuse McCain of vagueness because he stipulates that the Army Field Manual is to govern our interrogations. There is something to this. If the McCain amendment’s language is sparse and vague, the Field Manual is very specific. It’s also written basically to deal with POW’s. This means it frowns on any coercive techniques whatsoever, and when we capture someone like KSM we would be limited to methods like “verbal trickery.”

But one reason that McCain is relying on the Army Field Manual in his legislation is that it means he doesn’t have to be up-front about the fact that he wants to treat terrorists exactly like foot soldiers in a legitimate army, thus upgrading their moral status considerably and giving them protections they don’t deserve. His supporters engage in a related evasion when they pretend his legislation is outlawing “torture” and that its opponents are “pro-torture,” verbal trickery that is meant to mask the fact that the amendment would effectively outlaw all sorts of practices that fall short of torture.

All of this is a way to avoid a frank debate about our interrogation practices. Members of Congress should have to say what they consider “cruel” and what not. Is it cruel to give someone like KSM a “lapel shake”? McCain wants to avoid talking about those kind of specifics because it will make his position look unreasonable. Ideally, Congress should work through these methods, and reach a consensus. Another reason for all the evasion is that this would be an uncomfortable debate for everyone.

Who wants to discuss water-boarding? My view on it, since Andrew asks, is that it is close to torture, and reasonable people can conclude that it is and we should never do it. But other tactics we are talking about aren’t even close. After McCain passes, an interrogator won’t even be able to give a KSM a “belly slap,” and that’s what he and his supporters would prefer you didn’t notice.