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CIA Can Still Get Tough on Detainees

New interrogation rules will apply only to the military. The harsh tactics remain secret.

September 08, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — New U.S. policies on the treatment and interrogation of terrorism suspects outlined this week by the Bush administration mean that the military no longer will resort to harsh or extreme methods to obtain information -- but that the CIA could.

The new administration approach, first presented by President Bush in a speech Wednesday and detailed later by administration and military officials, followed an internal administration debate over the question of how best to extract intelligence from the most notorious suspects apprehended in the war on terrorism.

But by assigning the CIA to use tough, undefined methods on some detainees, the policy outlined by Bush may raise new questions about U.S. procedures and invite more criticism from human rights advocates and allies.

For the five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration's top leaders and senior policymakers have supported the use of harsh methods to obtain information that could head off future attacks and save lives. But military officers have insisted that such interrogation tactics are unproductive -- and inevitably lead to abuse.

On Wednesday, after years of internal debates, the administration outlined a compromise meant to reconcile the position of hard-liners and military traditionalists.

The Army, morally and culturally averse to using unorthodox interrogation methods, will get out of the business of using tough tactics against detainees under the compromise. The new Army field manual authorizes only 19 interrogation techniques and bans the most controversial tactics that critics said amounted to torture -- hooding prisoners, conducting mock executions, and strapping detainees to boards and using water to simulate drowning.

But the CIA will reserve the right to use the tougher tactics. Bush said such methods had been effective in getting some of the 14 top Al Qaeda suspects held by the agency to talk. Administration officials said the CIA tactics would be legal and fall well short of torture and abuse. But the president and others have pointedly refused to say what those tougher methods might be.

The compromise may satisfy the military, which can now say its soldiers will always comply with international treaties and steer well clear of torture. But it is not certain whether the new policy will satisfy those who have raised questions about American interrogation practices, including human rights advocates and members of Congress.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and aides have expressed frustration that they have not been told what the CIA techniques were and whether the agency would adhere to the ban on torture.

"We don't know what the methods are; that is where the difficulty lies," said a congressional aide who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the debate. "Although the Department of Defense techniques, bar none, are articulated openly, with the CIA there is no way to judge whether those techniques satisfy the ban on cruel and degrading treatment."

Human rights advocates applauded the military's embrace of Geneva Convention protections and the Army's decision to make public its interrogation tactics. But they worried that congressional approval of a CIA detention program that was secret and allowed a broad range of harsh techniques would be a step backward.

"They have decided to take the military out of the torture business and leave that to the CIA, and that is extremely problematic," said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International.

Administration officials said the new policy ensured that the toughest techniques were reserved only for the most experienced interrogators and used only on the most notorious suspects.

"The president made clear this is a small program targeting a certain category of high-level Al Qaeda members," said a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the deliberations involved.

Senior Pentagon officials suggested that creating separate rules for the CIA and the military represented a logical division of labor.

"Each of us has our task to do," Stephen A. Cambone, the undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, said in an interview Thursday.

For the uniformed military, disclosing interrogation tactics and outlining protections detainees will be afforded was vital to assuring the public that the military was doing all it could to ensure there would be no repeat of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

"The military really felt it has been tarnished by events at Abu Ghraib and other detainee abuses," said an administration official. "They want to restore a certain image, and so for them there is a greater interest in being able to speak with a great deal of transparency."

Military leaders argued this week that they did not believe abusive tactics worked in extracting information.

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