09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fix the Field Manual

Every time we think we know how bad it was we learn it was worse. The newly released CIA interrogation instructions paint a graphic picture of what "enhanced" techniques looked like in practice -- naked, shivering prisoners wearing soiled diapers being slapped and slammed repeatedly into walls. And that's just the instructions. No wonder the CIA destroyed the interrogation videotapes.

The instructions demonstrate powerfully why President Obama and the Interrogation Task Force deserve high praise for making a decisive break with these sordid Bush Administration practices and concluding that there is no legitimate need for interrogation techniques that go outside of the US Army Field Manual on Interrogation.

The Field Manual bans a number of forms of torture, like waterboarding. But more importantly it permits only a set of specifically described, tried and true, non-abusive techniques. It contains these essential protections against torture:

  • It's a single standard for the whole US Government.
  • It effectively bans all techniques not specifically described and authorized.
  • It's public.

The Field Manual contains one other critical protection -- the "Golden Rule." It tells interrogators to ask themselves, "Would I want this technique used on a captured American?" If not, don't use it. We owe a debt of gratitude to the mostly unheralded people who fought hard inside the Bush Administration and the military to preserve this and other core elements of the Field Manual.

But like so much else the Field Manual did not escape the Bush Administration unscathed. When the Administration revised the Manual in 2006 it deleted key policy statements. These included the observation, now endorsed by the Interrogation Task Force, that "[e]xperience shows that the use of prohibited techniques is not necessary to gain the cooperation of interrogation sources." The Bush Administration also deleted the important if obvious statement that torturing others may "place U.S. and allied personnel in enemy hands at a greater risk of abuse by their captors." These points should be restored.

More importantly, the Bush revisions created at least three critical problems which the Obama Administration must fix:

  • The Manual now approves sleep deprivation. Appendix M of the Manual ("Restricted Interrogation Technique - Separation") unfortunately steps on the treacherous terrain of creating special rules for special prisoners, including sleep deprivation -- a clearly illegal technique. Appendix M needs to be immediately deleted.
  • The Bush Administration deleted clear prohibitions against sleep deprivation and stress positions which the old Manual explicitly called "torture." That language should be restored.
  • The revised 2006 Manual appears to have been carefully edited to avoid unequivocal condemnation of most of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques. They should be expressly prohibited.

Few people have focused on this last point. As is well known, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Bush Justice Department wrote several "torture memos" defending the legality of about a dozen abusive interrogation techniques. These included the "attention grasp," slamming prisoners into plywood walls, the "insult" and "belly" slaps, "cramped confinement," wall standing and other stress positions, water dousing and cold, sleep deprivation, nudity and waterboarding. All of the "enhanced" techniques are implicitly banned by the Field Manual because none of them are approved for use (with the important exception of sleep deprivation in Appendix M). But what is very striking about the revised 2006 Field Manual is that almost none of them are explicitly banned.

It strains credulity to think this was an accident. Language in the old Manual clearly banned wall standing and other stress positions. It was deleted. The old Manual called sleep deprivation "torture." That was deleted. Rather than banning the use of cold, the 2006 Manual only prohibits causing "hypothermia" consistent with OLC limits on using cold. The 2006 Manual prohibits "beatings ... or other forms of physical pain." But it doesn't flatly ban assaults, which is critical because the OLC memos argue at great length that the authorized physical assaults - slapping, grabbing, walling and others - were intended to cause shock and not "pain." The 2006 Manual does not ban using water or cramped confinement.

In fact, waterboarding and nudity are probably the only "enhanced" Bush Administration techniques that John Yoo, principle author of the Bush "torture memos," would concede are expressly banned by the 2006 Manual. But these are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. By 2006 both had already been abandoned by the Administration.

President Obama has taken a vital step. But he needs to immediately shore up the foundation of his new interrogation policy by fixing the Field Manual.