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An Odd Thanksgiving Proposal: Let's Go Back to Torturing Detainees

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When the U.S. military first briefed the media on the new Army Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector Operations in 2006, a reporter asked whether it was really a good idea to make public the full array of interrogation techniques that the U.S. military was allowed to use.

"Sir, are you concerned, as an intelligent officer, that specifying exactly the 19 techniques that can be used, and not having anything else classified, will hinder your troops' ability to gather the intelligence that they need?"

Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Lt. Gen. John Kimmons responded:

That's a good question. And it's one that we, frankly, wrestled with for several months. We initially considered taking the additional techniques I described, the three new ones, and putting them into a classified appendix of some sort to keep them out of the hands of the enemy, who regularly reads our field manuals as a matter of course.

We weigh that against the needs for transparency and working openly with our coalition partners who don't have access to all of our classified publications, and also the need to be as clear as we can be in the training of these techniques to our own soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as to reduce the risks of inadvertent migration from a classified domain into a(n) unclassified text by virtue of them being separated.

We also felt that even classified techniques, once you use them on the battlefield over time, become increasingly known to your enemies, some of whom are going to be released in due course. And so on balance, in consultation with our combatant commanders, we decided to go this route. We're very comfortable with it; so are our combatant commanders.

This all happened in the thick of the "war on terror," during the administration of President George W. Bush. That same year, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, confirming lawmakers' belief in the importance of humane, transparent interrogation techniques that wouldn't confuse U.S. soldiers or alienate U.S. allies.

Unfortunately, some U.S. lawmakers have a very short memory. Last week, during negotiations over a defense authorization bill, freshman Senator Kelly Ayotte slipped in an amendment that would specifically contradict the military commanders' judgment, as well as a presidential executive order supported by prominent military generals.

Amendment 1068
would allow military interrogators to use techniques outside those allowed by the Army Field Manual when interrogating "high-value" detainees. It would also require the administration to adopt a classified annex to the manual, of the sort the Defense Department specifically rejected in 2005, that would allow the use of a set of secret interrogation techniques on those considered "high-value" prisoners.

Although the Amendment says those techniques would comply with current law, that's cold comfort. After all, government lawyers have in the past defined waterboarding, stress positions, extended sleep deprivation and more as compliant with U.S. law, too. Indeed, the point of the bill seems to be to do just what some candidates in the 2012 presidential race have been threatening to do -- to bring back waterboarding and other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" used in the early days of the Bush presidency. Those techniques have since been almost universally denounced, including by senior members of the U.S. military.

General David Petraeus, for example, has said that cruel interrogation comes to "bite you in the back side in the long run" and that "you undermine your cause by practices such as waterboarding and other so-called enhancements."

Senator Ayotte, the author of the amendment, is a former New Hampshire Attorney General who presumably knows a good deal about law enforcement. I'm sure that New Hampshire State Police don't use secret "enhanced" interrogation techniques, though they boast a strong record of keeping New Hampshire residents safe. But a disturbing trend among some Republicans lately, as we saw in last night's GOP presidential debate, is to treat any terror-related crime as something completely new and different, which needn't comply with even our most basic sense of decency, let alone U.S. law.

Still, while Senator Ayotte doesn't herself have any military or intelligence background, her husband did serve in the war in Iraq. Surely she has respect for what senior U.S. military from both Republican and Democratic administrations have to say about the destructive potential of allowing secret torture techniques in military interrogations. Which makes her proposal to reintroduce them, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, particularly odd.

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