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Make them talk

Congress is right to demand more information about the CIA's terrorist interrogation tactics.

January 04, 2007

HOWEVER ELSE it might modify its behavior in dealing with a new, Democratic-controlled Congress, the Bush administration is still stonewalling when it comes to sharing information about its tactics in the "war on terror." That's a mistake.

This week, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disclosed that the Justice Department had spurned his request for two documents. One is a presidential directive regarding Central Intelligence Agency interrogation methods and detention facilities outside the United States. The other is a 2002 Justice Department memo on the subject to the CIA's top lawyer.

Leahy, who raised the possibility of issuing subpoenas to obtain the documents, lamented that the rebuff from the Justice Department "is not the constructive step toward bipartisanship that I had hoped for, given President Bush's promise to work with us." In this case Leahy's complaint is justified.

As Leahy pointed out in his letter to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, "photographs and reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere that have emerged during the past two years depict an interrogation and detention system operating contrary to U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions." Such revelations also have been a boon to anti-American propagandists.

The abuses have stoked suspicions about "alternative" methods used by the CIA in questioning high-profile suspected terrorists held in foreign prisons before being moved to Guantanamo. While insisting that those techniques didn't amount to torture, the president has suggested that they are vital in eliciting information.

Yet what those methods might be is anybody's guess. Congress -- and not just its intelligence committees -- has a right to know.

In declining to provide Leahy documents, acting Assistant Atty. Gen. James H. Clinger warned that "Al Qaeda seeks information on our interrogation techniques -- their methods and their limits -- and trains its operatives to resist them. We must avoid assisting their effort." Disclosing legally controversial defense procedures to a Senate committee chairman is not "assisting" Al Qaeda; it's respecting the separation of powers written in the Constitution and ensuring that no policy be declared off-limits to the law.

Leahy could offer to view the documents under safeguards created for sensitive intelligence. But the Judiciary Committee has a legitimate oversight responsibility to see what the CIA has been doing and whether it's violating the law. At some point in the next two years, Democrats may well abuse their majority status and pursue gratuitous or overtly political investigations. This request, however, is legitimate.

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