Why the Controversy Will Continue

Good op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled “The Unlearned Lessons of Abu Ghraib.”  The author, Christopher Graveline, was an Army JAG officer who participated in the prosecution of 10 soldiers for detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison.  Graveline writes: 

President Bush has signed into law Congress’s latest attempt to clarify our country’s position on proper treatment of detainees and the boundaries of legitimate interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, this legislation demonstrates that both the administration and Congress have failed to learn important lessons from what Bush described as the “biggest mistake that’s happened so far” in Iraq: the detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib.

By dissociating potential criminal responsibility from overly aggressive interrogation practices that could be classified as “minor” breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and setting up a situation in which different interrogation practices can be used by our military and the CIA, our national leadership has ensured more abuse scandals. …

The new law grants too much latitude in an area where precision and oversight are critical. If confusion reigned in Washington during the past several weeks over whether waterboarding or other, “harsher” techniques would be permissible under the legislation, imagine the results when our agents and service members are faced with the same question halfway around the world and years removed from this debate – especially if the threat of criminal responsibility is gone.

To illustrate that point, compare Scenario A with Scenario B below.

Scenario A: This is a random misdeed by U.S. personnel and it is illegal.

In this scenario, the man under the hood is a prisoner in U.S. custody.  But this is a rogue operation against the prisoner that was not authorized by the president.  Incidents like this will be investigated–and whoever did this will face prosecution.

Scenario B: This is Long-time standing and it is permissible.

In this scenario, the man under the hood is also a prisoner in U.S. custody.  Long-time standing is an interrogation technique reportedly used by the CIA.  And President Bush says the Military Commission Act will revive the CIA program. Thus, if this tactic was indeed authorized by the president, there is no need for any investigation in this scenario.  The American interrogators were just doing their job.

This Washington Post editorial sums it up well.  President Bush alludes to “tough tactics,” but he will not publicly identify what will be done.  Bottom line: tough tactics will be used–and then there will be more media reports of torture, and then, in response, the administration will restate its opposition to torture.  The Military Commission Act has done little to clarify the rules and to settle the controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody.