November 7, 2005 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

The Torture Test

A key factor in planning any covert operation is full consideration of "blowback" - the painful consequences of an "op" gone bad. This time the CIA is stinging from the "blowback" of last week's revelation that it's playing warden to a string of secret overseas terrorist prisons.

With human-rights groups howling "torture" and "gulag," the International Red Cross and the European Union seeking answers, and the Bush administration maintaining monk-like silence, the effect on public opinion at home and America's image abroad will be painful.

So how do we recover from this newest black eye?

By taking action: Close the "black site" jailhouses, transfer the detainees to established facilities like Guantanamo Bay; and pass/implement legislation in the spirit of Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) amendments to the pending Defense Department spending bill.

These interrogation/incarceration facilities made a great deal of sense immediately after the 9/11 attacks - nabbing al Qaeda terrorists, quickly gathering critical intelligence and preventing future terrorist strikes. But they've outlived their usefulness.

With the expectation that other terrorist attacks were imminent in the days after 9/11, it was a good idea for the CIA to establish - ASAP - regional detention facilities in such far-flung places as Afghanistan, Thailand and, even, Eastern Europe to quickly get al Qaeda operatives out of circulation.

The threat was real: In December 2001, for instance, Singapore broke up a well-developed bombing plot against the U.S. ships and sailors and the U.S. Australian, British and Israeli embassies by the al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiya.

In fact, most of the commentariat agreed that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the CIA did a terrific job in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Its quick actions in neutralizing al Qaeda assets across the globe undoubtedly disrupted additional attacks on the homeland and American interests overseas.

But with high-tech, high-security facilities like the U.S. naval prison at "Gitmo" now available, these clandestine holding facilities have lost their original purpose. The CIA's jailhouses should be shuttered, and the detainees moved to places where they can be held and fully interrogated for their intelligence value.

Sen. McCain is onto something as well. McCain's so-called "Anti-Torture Provisions" (presented as amendments to this year's defense spending bill) set clear guidelines (finally!) for the treatment of enemy detainees. The move has wide bipartisan support in Congress.

This common-sense legislation would: a) Establish the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation (FM 34-52) as the standard for detainee interrogation; and b) Prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment for those under U.S. detention.

McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, realizes that - contrary to popular belief - the use of extreme measures (e.g., torture and humiliation) in the detainee interrogation process is counterproductive to gathering intelligence and our image abroad, especially in the Muslim world.

In fact, highly coercive techniques actually hinder our interrogators from acquiring accurate information desperately needed by battlefield commanders and policymakers because detainees will often say almost anything to get the interrogator to stop the torture/humiliation.

Moreover, McCain rightly notes that prisoner abuse "has executed a terrible toll on us in the war of ideas." Considering past mistakes like Abu Ghraib, it's time to end this cycle of abuse scandals and unequivocally declare in law that we don't support torture or similar interrogation techniques, even in times of war.

While some argue that the issue of "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" needs greater definition in the legislation, the McCain rules provide U.S. military personnel with interrogation guidelines that have been much-needed for far too long.

And while others argue that the legislation usurps the president's right to provide for American national security, the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) gives Congress the explicit right to make rules for the nation's armed forces.

If anything, the McCain measures should cover all personnel involved in detention/interrogation, including the CIA and U.S. government contractors.

If congressional leaders manage to squelch the McCain proposals, they'll also send an inadvertent, but regrettable, message abroad: Torture is "OK" by the American people. That's wrong, and it endangers America's security, credibility and interests abroad, including our troops in harm's way.

While the memories of Abu Ghraib are still fresh and with new allegations of secret CIA prisons, the Congress and the Bush administration can't move too quickly in turning the page on this dark chapter by publicly setting clear, consistent rules for where and how we hold and treat detainees in our custody.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post