Interrogation Rules Criticized as Vague

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President Bush signs an executive order laying out rules for interrogation of terrorism suspects. But the long-awaited order is not as specific — or transparent — as many had hoped.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Bush has signed an executive order that lays out legal boundaries for how the CIA should interrogate terrorism suspects. The order prohibits - among other things - torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, humiliation and denigration of prisoner's religious beliefs.

Now this is - there is, rather, a classified section of the executive order. But administration officials indicated that the order still allows for some harsh interrogation techniques by the CIA.

NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam has been following this story. Jackie, thanks for being with us.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And do we have any idea what some of those interrogation techniques are?

NORTHAM: No. This executive order just gives a broad, vague outline as to what is not allowed. So, as you say, no torture, no mutilation, no rape or performing of biological experiments. And what the document doesn't make clear, Scott, is what is allowed.

So we don't know if things such as hooding a prisoner is allowed or whether sleep deprivation is an acceptable tactic or whether waterboarding is allowed - and that's an interrogation technique that simulates drowning. When asked yesterday, senior administration officials said they wouldn't discuss what can be used by the CIA because al-Qaida or other terror suspects could train to withstand those techniques. But the same administration officials stressed that all of the techniques were within the bounds of the ban on torture in the Geneva Convention.

SIMON: So what kind of change does this represent?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, that question came up repeatedly and the administration officials just would not answer it. What it appears to do is this document formalizes the legal boundaries for the CIA. The whole interrogation program has essentially been on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that any detainees held by the U.S. have to be treated in accordance with Geneva Convention prohibitions against torture and humiliating and degrading treatment.

CIA director General Michael Hayden said in a statement yesterday that the executive order means the program can go ahead and that CIA interrogators now have new legal protections against any claims of wrongdoing. And Hayden said this program, these techniques, had been vital in the war on terrorism, and that the enhanced interrogation methods really have only been used on less than a hundred suspects, but they have been crucial.

SIMON: But I guess the indication is that people in the administration say that they don't want someone who is a terrorism suspect to go into an interrogation thinking that he has trained to survive fill in the blank, a technique like sleep deprivation.

NORTHAM: Exactly. Yes. And, you know, there are techniques like this too. But, you know, it's been interesting. The reaction so far to this order - you know, it was released late Friday afternoon in the middle of a summer. So there hasn't been any widespread reaction from Congress.

Senator John Rockefeller said he wants to see - he's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He wants the CIA to come before his committee and explain what this really means in actual, you know, conduct. And that he wants the Justice Department to weigh in as well.

But human rights groups have criticized just a - there's something fundamentally wrong with the idea of having an executive order about how to treat people who are being held in secret CIA prisons. So we'll see what happens from here on in.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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