A middle ground for interrogations

The CIA has been unsatisfied with the cooperation of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban military commander being interrogated in Pakistani custody, and has pushed for his transfer to an American-run prison in Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reported this past weekend. But even should that transfer occur, the United States may not have any greater success eliciting information from him — because President Obama eliminated the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.

This raises an urgent question: Is there a reasonable middle ground that would allow the Obama administration to effectively interrogate resistant terrorist leaders without compromising its opposition to torture? There most certainly is.

To be clear, Obama did not end waterboarding; it was no longer part of the formal CIA interrogation program he inherited from the Bush administration. Indeed, former CIA Director Mike Hayden says he told Obama’s national security transition team, “All those things you think you need to do [on interrogation]? We already did them.”

Yet when Obama came into office and issued an executive order requiring adherence to the Army Field Manual, he eliminated effective interrogation techniques that no one could argue were torture: the facial hold, attention grasp, tummy slap, facial slap, a diet of liquid Ensure and mild sleep deprivation (a maximum of four consecutive days). That’s it. Former director of national intelligence Mike McConnell told me “playing high school football subjects you to more danger than these techniques.”

Even more damaging, Obama removed the veil of mystery that surrounded our interrogation techniques. Under the Bush administration, this scaled-down CIA interrogation program worked because the terrorists did not know the limits. In 2007, a senior al-Qaeda terrorist named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was captured and taken into CIA custody. When his interrogators told him he was in the hands of the CIA, he replied: “I’ve heard of you guys. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.” Just the existence of the CIA program, and the uncertainty of what he might face, was enough to get this al-Qaeda terrorist talking. That would never happen today. Obama has revealed the secrets behind how we question terrorists. And with the Army Field Manual available on the Internet, terrorists can study our techniques and train to resist them.

By ordering strict adherence to the field manual, Obama also requires that captured terrorists receive better treatment in the interrogation room than common criminals. For instance, a local district attorney can threaten a criminal suspect with capital punishment if he refuses to cooperate. Under the Army Field Manual, a detainee cannot be threatened in any way. It is designed to comply with the highest standard imposed on any kind of custodial questioning — the “prisoner of war” privileges guaranteed by the Third Geneva Convention. Terrorists do not merit such treatment.

Obama can correct this situation without bringing back the most controversial techniques he opposes. On the morning Obama issued his executive order, Hayden called White House counsel Greg Craig and made a simple suggestion: Just add the words “unless otherwise authorized by the president.” Adding these words today would allow the administration to provide U.S. interrogators with additional lawful techniques. And it would restore a level of uncertainty for our enemies about what they would face in the interrogation room. If the techniques are kept secret, this could increase the odds that other terrorists would respond the way Abd al-Hadi did.

Obama could also strengthen interrogation by lifting the restrictions he has imposed on secret detention. Previously, some detainees were secretly interrogated for months before al-Qaeda learned they were in custody — allowing the CIA to gain invaluable intelligence before terrorist groups could cover their tracks. The Obama administration understands the importance of some period of secrecy — which is why the White House reportedly asked the New York Times to hold off revealing the detention of Mullah Baradar. But under the rules Obama has set, the United States must identify every detainee to the International Red Cross within two weeks of capture — no exceptions. These restrictions could easily be adjusted to allow longer periods of secret detention.

Of course, such adjustments are no substitute for the robust interrogation program established by the Bush administration, nor would they undo the damage Obama did by releasing the details of U.S. interrogation techniques. But they would give America a better chance of successfully interrogating captured terrorists — without requiring the president to give up his specious claims that he has “banned torture.”

Marc Thiessen, the author of Courting Disaster.