Looking Forward, Not Backward: Refining American Interrogation Law

May 10, 2009

The following is part of the Series on Counterterrorism and American Statutory Law, a joint project of the Brookings Institution, the Georgetown University Law Center, and the Hoover Institution


The worldwide scandal spurred by the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Afghanistan and secret CIA prisons during the Bush Administration has been a stain on America’s honor and a catastrophe for our national image. Understandably eager to save innocent lives by breaking the resistance of a few Al Qaeda leaders, Bush and his aides went way overboard. Instead of crafting special rules to allow for exceptionally tough interrogations of those few leaders and maintaining strict limits to ensure that those interrogations stopped short of torture, the Bush team chose to gut the laws, rules and customs restraining coercive interrogations. They did this with a public bravado and an ostentatious disregard for international law that both scandalized world opinion and sent dangerous signals down through the ranks. These signals contributed to lawlessness and to confusion about what the rules were supposed to be. They helped open the floodgates both to CIA excesses widely seen as torture and to brutal treatment by the military of hundreds of small-fry and mistakenly-arrested innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan and of an unknown number of prisoners at Guantánamo. All this inspired widespread international and domestic revulsion and gravely undermined America’s political and moral standing and ability to work with some allied governments.

The policies that led to this scandal were long ago largely abandoned by the Bush Administration itself. Years before President Obama took power, the former president’s lawyers stopped claiming for Bush the power in effect to nullify the federal law that makes torture a crime. While the administration did not concede that highly coercive methods including waterboarding, an infamous form of simulated drowning, are banned under current law, the CIA had discontinued that method after using it to help break three Al Qaeda figures in 2002 and 2003. And Congress adopted new restrictions on interrogation in the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005 and in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The military, with sharp prods from Congress and the Supreme Court, got out of the coercive interrogation business entirely in 2006.

But Congress, the media, and other critics have continued to focus so intensely on the sins of the past, particularly in light of President Obama’s release of the prior administration’s formal legal opinions on coercive interrogation, as to neglect serious analysis of what is at this stage a far more important question: What rules should govern future interrogations? In particular, what should our government do the next time it captures known terrorist leaders who likely possess information that could save lives yet who are fiercely determined not to divulge that information? Should the law prohibit CIA interrogators from using any coercion at all, as the Democratic-led Congress voted to do in 2008, and thereby reclaim some international good will by disavowing what may prove an important safeguard against terrorist mass murders? If not, then exactly how much coercion should Congress allow, using what interrogation methods, on what kinds of prisoners, and with what high-level approvals and congressional oversight?

The new administration has so far offered answers to these questions that are at once bold and tentative. They are bold in the sense that they represent a virtually complete repudiation of what remained of the Bush Administration’s policies. The prior administration still permitted the CIA to hold detainees in secret sites away from the prying eyes of the International Committee of the Red Cross and subject them to interrogation tactics not authorized by the military and—in some cases—in violation of, or at least in grave tension with, extant law. The Obama Administration, by contrast, has revoked the CIA’s standing detention authority and required that it comply with military interrogation policies, including an instruction not to “threaten or coerce” detainees. It has required ICRC access for all detainees. Whereas Bush spoke proudly and publicly of the “tough” interrogations he authorized, Obama emphasized in his inaugural address that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” and stressed in his first address to Congress that “living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”[i] He also stressed in a press conference this April that he did not regard coercive interrogation as having netted the United States intelligence benefits. “I put an end to these practices,” he said. “I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.”[ii]

On the other hand, Obama’s new policies are tentative both in the sense that they are non-statutory—accomplished through an executive order, not changes in the law itself—and in the sense that they may prove temporary. While the executive order creates a hard-line anti-coercion default policy for now, it also establishes a task force to study whether the CIA needs more flexibility in interrogation rules for the longer term. And Obama is free secretly to make exceptions to his order if ever a crisis arises in which he, like Bush, may consider coercion necessary.

This essay deals fundamentally with the prospective question of how to amend American interrogation law to balance the need to avoid Bush-like excesses against the need to get intelligence from captured terrorists. It begins by examining some of the deceptions and evasions that frustrate candid discussion of coercive interrogation and torture. It then reviews the post-September 11 evolution of Bush administration policies on interrogation, the experiences of the CIA and the military, and the lessons to be learned from those experiences. It focuses, in particular, on two questions: Has coercive interrogation saved lives that could not have been saved through conventional questioning, either in the post-September 11 context or earlier in history? And is it inevitable that coercive methods, once allowed, will spin out of control? It then turns to a discussion of why, in our judgment, it is essential for Congress and the next president to craft decent, effective, democratically legitimate, internationally respectable interrogation laws for the future; of what those rules should forbid and authorize; and of how to handle exceptionally exigent circumstances that may call for violating the usual rules.

There is no one best legal regime. Each possible approach to these questions has real costs. But America should be able to improve on the legacy of Bush. It should also be able to improve on the approach of human rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch—and of Congress and the Obama Administration to date. Congress has moved from what-me-worry passivity about coercive practices, to passing in December 2005 a law imposing virtuous-sounding but vague restrictions on interrogators without clear guidance, to voting in 2008 for far more stringent restrictions (a bill which Bush vetoed) without serious discussion of the costs and benefits of any of these approaches. And while the Obama Administration has not embraced such legislation, the executive order the new president signed does effectively the same thing.

We, by contrast, favor a regime characterized by relatively stringent baseline rules but with flexibility built in for the most wrenching, highest-stakes cases. Without a firmer sense than the public record offers of the effectiveness of both mildly- and highly-coercive interrogation techniques, any responsible policy proposal will necessarily be somewhat tentative. And our proposal could shift in a more or less restrictive direction in response to changed understanding of what “works” in interrogation. That said, in our view, it is essential that American interrogation policy be anchored in law. And at least as the record currently stands, that law should have the following contours:

  • The military should continue to ban all coercive interrogation, and the CIA should avoid it except in extraordinary circumstances, with vigorous congressional oversight to ensure compliance.
  • The CIA should retain the option of using mildly coercive methods such as threats, isolation, and disrupting sleep patterns—for carefully limited periods of time—on high-value prisoners who defy standard interrogation methods.
  • Highly coercive interrogation that falls short of torture should be off limits even for the CIA, with an important exception: Congress should reserve to the president and the attorney general the power to authorize the CIA to use highly coercive methods such as sleep deprivation and forced standing on a very small number[iii] of high-value prisoners if and only if the president and attorney general comply with detailed procedures to ensure restraint and accountability.
  • Torture should remain a crime in all circumstances, and the definition of torture should be tightened to reflect a more commonsense understanding of morally unacceptable coercion. If an emergency so dire should arise that the president or a subordinate feels compelled to cross (or arguably cross) the line into authorizing illegal torture, his only option should be to violate (or arguably violate) the law and chance the consequences.

[i] Barack Obama, Inaugural Address (Washington, DC, January 20, 2009); Barack Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress (Washington, DC, February 24, 2009).

[ii] Barack Obama, News Conference by the President (The White House, Washington, DC, April 29, 2009).

[iii] CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that since 2001, the agency used “enhanced techniques” on only about one-third of the fewer than 100 suspected Al Qaeda terrorists of whom it has had custody. U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Open Hearing: Current and Projected National Security Threats, 110th Cong., 2nd sess., February 5, 2008. The exact numbers, as the subsequent releases made clear were that 94 detainees passed through the CIA’s detention program, of whom 28 were interrogated with any of the enhanced techniques. See Steven G. Bradbury to John A Rizzo, memorandum, “Re: Application of United States Obligations under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture to Certain Techniques that May Be Used in the Interrogation of High Value Al Qaeda Detainees,” 30 May 2005, 29 (hereafter “Convention Against Torture” memo).