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What a long way we’ve come.

Remember when Vice President Dick Cheney off-handedly admitted to an interviewer that “a dunk in the water” is a “no-brainer” if it can save lives? The White House did its utmost to deny the obvious.

But the strategy has changed. Now administration officials are proclaiming in the open that yes, the U.S. waterboarded three detainees, yes, it was legal, and yes, there’s a possibility we’d do so again. The stress, of course, is on the fact that waterboarding is not in the current authorized battery of interrogation techniques. But nevertheless, there it is. The administration has apparently decided that this is a debate they can win out in the open. From The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.):

Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official who previously worked on Capitol Hill, said the debate over the aggressive antiterrorism tactics had become clouded by emotion and the administration brought forth the new details in an attempt to make its case more directly. “They feel like this debate has become…somewhat difficult, and they want to get it back on track,” said Mr. Lowenthal.

As we reported late yesterday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has already called for a criminal investigation. Anyone who watched Michael Mukasey’s performance one week ago knows what the answer will be.

The major threat, as the administration sees it, is pending bipartisan legislation that would restrict the CIA to using the Army Field Manual as its guide to interrogating detainees. Yesterday, Hayden made a twofold response to that.

The first, as noted above, was to stress that the “circumstances” are very different from what they were five or six years ago — and it’s unlikely that waterboarding will be used again.

The second was to argue that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques were only employed by a small group of professionals (both CIA employees and contractors) who really know what they’re doing. They’ve only been used on approximately thirty out of 100 detainees, he said. The Army Field Manual governs a much larger population of detainees and interrogators do not receive the same “exhaustive” training as those working for the CIA. It makes no sense, or as he put it: “it would make no more sense to apply the Army Field Manual to CIA — the Army Field Manual on interrogations — than it would be to take the Army Field Manual on grooming and apply it to my agency” (see below for Hayden’s full argument on this).

It will be interesting to see how successful this more straightforward strategy will have. A number of key Republican swing votes — including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — would make the difference.From Hayden’s testimony yesterday:

The Army Field Manual describes a subset of that universe. I’ve heard no one claim that the Army Field Manual exhausts all the tools that could or should be legitimately available to our republic to defend itself when it comes to questioning people who would intend our republic harm.

What I would say is the Army Field Manual meets the needs of America’s Army — and, you know, give that to you in maybe three or four different senses.

It meets the needs of America’s Army in terms of who’s going to do it, which, in the case of the Army Field Manual, would be a relatively large population of relatively young men and women who have received good training but not exhaustive training in all potential situations.

So the population of who’s doing it is different than the population that would be working for me inside the CIA interrogation program.

The population of who they do it to would also be different. In the life of the CIA detention program, we have held fewer than 100 people. And actually, fewer than one-third of those people have had any techniques used against them, enhanced techniques, in the CIA program.

America’s Army literally today is holding over 20,000 detainees in Iraq alone. And so again, there’s a difference in terms of who’s doing it, against whom you’re doing it, and then, finally, in the circumstances under which you’re doing the interrogation.

And I know there can be circumstances in military custody that are as protected and isolated and controlled as in our detention facilities, but in many instances that is not the case.

These are interrogations against enemy soldiers who almost always will be lawful combatants, in tactical situations, from whom you expect to get information of transient and tactical value.

None of that applies to the detainees we hold, to the interrogators we have, or the information we are attempting to seek.

And so I would subscribe and support — in fact, the CIA had a chance to comment on the Army Field Manual during its development — that the Army Field Manual does exactly what it does — exactly what it needs to do for the United States Army.

But on the face of it, it would make no more sense to apply the Army Field Manual to CIA — the Army Field Manual on interrogations — than it would be to take the Army Field Manual on grooming and apply it to my agency, or the Army Field Manual on recruiting and apply it to my agency, or, for that matter, take the Army Field Manual on sexual orientation and apply it to my agency.

This was built to meet the needs of America’s Army. We should not confine our universe of lawful interrogation to a subset of those techniques that were developed for one purpose.