President Bush’s executive order on CIA interrogations in the war on terrorism contains a classified annex listing precisely what techniques are acceptable. In other words, if not for some well-placed leakers, it’ll be decades before anyone learns precisely what CIA interrogators are permitted to do to so-called “High-Value Targets” of al-Qaeda. But there are some clues.
Take this one. Generically, the standard set for banning procedures is listed as those acts “so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency.” (Italics added.) That’s a big loophole — much like the one in President Bush’s February 2, 2002 executive order (pdf) stipulating that detainees in military custody should be treated according to the “principles” of the Geneva Conventions “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.” Here, the crucial caveat is that an already-subjective judgment call on violating “human decency” take into account the likelihood of a detainee being a terrorist or possessing critical intelligence — both of which would likely relax someone’s definition of “decency.”
And that may be, in part, what gets interrogators to some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” listed in the annex. The order explicitly bans interrogators from murdering, raping or sexually humiliating detainees. Beyond that, there’s this assurance:
detainees in the program receive the basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.
That’s a strong indication that a technique called the “Cold Cell” — in which a detainee is stripped nude while his surroundings are chilled to 50 degrees and he’s doused with cold water — is either no longer part of interrogators’ repertoire or has been modified from its original form. It’s less clear whether there’s a loophole for some of CIA’s more infamous techniques, including waterboarding, which sources tell Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times was “abandoned years ago.”
Not mentioned, however, are similar injunctions on sleep deprivation or sensory manipulation, such as barraging a detainee with light or noise for extended periods of time to induce disorientation. Both practices are thought to be in recent usage by CIA interrogators. And while senior officials wouldn’t give any comment on those or other techniques, an alert reporter on a Friday conference call with anonymous senior officials caught the lack of reference to sleep deprivation. From the transcript:
QUESTION: Hi. I have a couple quick questions. One is in the provision that talks about how the detainees ought to receive the basic necessities of life, there’s food and water, shelter from elements, and so forth, is there a reason that sleep is not included in that category? Can you say, regarding protection from extremes of heat and cold how someone would define what constitutes an extreme?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think these are standards and terms that are traditionally used in the Geneva conventions and consistently applied. And each of them would — the term like extremes of heat and cold I think would be given a reasonable interpretation based on circumstances. But I think it’s intended to be clear that we’re not talking about forcibly induced hypothermia or any use of extreme temperatures as a practice in a program like this. And so I think that is intended to be clear.
And as to sleep, that’s not something that is traditionally enumerated in the Geneva Convention provisions. And beyond that I’m not in a position to comment about particular —
The official, according to the transcript, doesn’t say anything more. The lack of reference to sleep deprivation or sensory manipulation in the order suggests that the approach taken by the Bush administration is that on so-called “torture lite” interrogation methods, only what’s expressly prohibited by Geneva is expressly prohibited by CIA interrogators. Combined with the “considering the circumstances” caveat, that leaves a lot of leeway for an interrogator to abuse a detainee.