President Barack Obama has approved the creation of what is described as an elite team of interrogators, drawn from several different government agencies, to question key terrorism suspects.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG (don’t you love those government acronyms?) will be headquartered at the FBI and overseen by the National Security Council, which puts the White House firmly in charge.
Interrogation had previously been the province of the CIA and the military.
Whether this is the reason for a “profanity-laden screaming match,” as one witness reported it, featuring CIA director Leon Panetta at the White House recently, is difficult to guess.
The CIA chief did have other gripes, including the release of a 2004 internal report that was skeptical of some CIA interrogation practices (a CIA spokesman has denied any tirade, while noting that Panetta is known to use “salty language”).
The best thing about this new interrogation team is that the task force report that recommended it concluded that the Army Field Manual interrogation guidelines will be the standard for all government interrogators.
This seems to place off-limits almost all of the “enhanced interrogation,” or torture, techniques employed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Prior to this the CIA had a limited license to use techniques not in the Army Field Manual.
This is healthy. Torture and certain techniques in a gray area between standard interrogation and torture were not only inappropriate, even outrageous in a country that respects the rule of law, but there is no solid evidence that they provided any important information about terrorist tactics or potential attacks.
Indeed, the best evidence is that standard interrogation techniques, while they may take longer, are more effective at eliciting reliable information than torture or near-torture.
President Obama’s initiative, however, has some potential downsides. The first is that the new unit is essentially an interagency task force that might turn out to be clumsy and ineffective.
Ivan Eland, director of the Center for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, said that while he is generally skeptical of new agencies, this initiative, by giving several agencies seats at the table, will make it difficult to approve questionable or aggressive techniques.
While streamlining the path to approving of torture is not a good idea, we worry that this new unit could become a bureaucratic nightmare.
Will various agencies really want to release their best interrogators to serve in an ad hoc unit? Will the best interrogators see such service as beneficial or detrimental to their career path? And will this unit become yet another permanent bureaucracy, living long after the current threat of terrorism has subsided — as it will eventually?
With those caveats, however, it may be that this new interrogation unit is the best available solution in an overgrown government to the approval of torture, which stained this country’s reputation.