The New York Times is reporting today on a legal memorandum, apparently secretly authorized by now former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which essentially endorses the use of torture in interrogations. While a public opinion was issued in December, 2004 condemning the use of such practices, a second opinion was issued in February, 2005 explicitly allowing psychological and physical torture when questioning prisoners.
In 2005, Congress was in the process of “outlawing ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ treatment” when yet another secret opinion was issued by the Justice Department. In this document, it was stated that none of the C.I.A.’s current procedures, which assumingly included harsh psychological and physical tactics, would fall into the classification of actions being regulated by Congress.
Even though a number of practices have been dropped due to pressure from Congress and the Supreme Court, this latest opinion appears to remain in effect and has been reinforced by additional recent memorandums. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that Al Qaeda members are covered by the Geneva Convention, leading to the cessation of interrogation practices such as the pouring of water over the suspect’s covered head to induce a fear of suffocation, President Bush in July, 2006 “signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in ‘black sites’ overseas”.
There are two specific issues raised within this article (although I am sure that there are many more) that call into question the use of torture by the United States in prisoner interrogation. The first is the effectiveness of these methods. According to the article, “President Bush and C.I.A. officials would later insist that the harsh measures produced crucial intelligence”. However, the article goes on to say that, “many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that less coercive methods are equally or more effective”. If “less coercive” methods are in fact “equally or more effective”, it would seem that the effectiveness of harsh psychological and physical tactics in interrogation may be overstated and the use of such tactics unnecessary. Nonetheless, even proof that these tactics are more effective does not account for the physical and mental anguish the prisoners may be put through.
A second issue, regarding the use of torture in general, is the fact that it opens the door potentially a bit wider than expected. In one sense, the use of such tactics may be overused. As John D. Hutson, a former Navy lawyer states, “I know from the military that if you tell someone they can do a little of this for the country’s good, some people will do a lot of it for the country’s better”. Mr. Hutson not only fears the abuse of these tactics by Americans, but fears that such a policy may endanger Americans. In expressing his fear of such, he asks, “The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?”
Finally, as for these secret approvals and orders, a question of the checks and balances system our government operates on is called into question. As stated in this article, Congress has attempted to pass legislation to limit these interrogation tactics; these attempts have been met by the Executive Branch issuing memorandums that these laws do not apply to their existing practices, although it would seem that these were the exact types of practices Congress was attempting to prohibit. Then, even after the Supreme Court has ruled regarding torture practices and the coverage of Al Qaeda prisoners by the Geneva Convention, apparently President Bush has signed another executive order, of which the exact contents are unknown, authorizing “enhanced” interrogation techniques and holding these prisoners in secret locations. Although Congress and the Supreme Court appear to be attempting to protect the rights of prisoners’ and prevent them from being subjected to these interrogation techniques, it seems that the Executive Branch is taking it upon itself to continue to allow these practices, even though there are arguably more effective and humane methods to obtain the required information.