White House, Pentagon Split on Interrogation Tactics

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Even as the Pentagon issues new interrogation techniques prohibiting certain tactics used in the past, the White House is asking Congress to legalize some of the same tactics.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Official Washington is embroiled in a war of words and tactics over how to handle terror suspects. This week the Pentagon issued new interrogation rules that strictly prohibit certain techniques considered cruel or degrading during interrogation of detainees.

Meanwhile, the president praised the results of some of that kind of interrogation in a speech he gave at the White House. We've asked two of our reporters to explain what's going on. NPR's Pentagon correspondent John Hendren and White House reporter David Greene. Gentlemen, welcome.

DAVID GREENE: Thanks, Linda.

JOHN HENDREN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, David, lets start with you. President Bush talked about these extraordinary, so-called high value terror prisoners that have been moved from secret CIA prisons somewhere to Guantanamo. And he talked about how much the country has learned from these people and how valuable it has been. He said that some of the things they learned from these prisoners actually stopped future attacks.

GREENE: That's exactly right. It was a speech at the White House where he was actually acknowledging the existence of these CIA prisons for the first time. And he said that a lot of the tactics that were used there - he used very vague terms like sensitive questioning, and the White House described them as specialty authorized procedures, physical pressure put on detainees - but that a lot of these very harsh tactics produced results.

And the crux of his message was that this kind of interrogation is effective. He said these tactics produced vital information and actually broke up some terror attacks and saved innocent lives.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there was a very different message on the same day, John, from the Pentagon about what soldiers can and cannot do in interrogating detainees in custody. The Pentagon has forbidden things like near-drowning, sleep deprivation, extreme isolation, a whole list of things that can no longer be done.

HENDREN: That's right. It was as if they were reading off of two sets of notes. The president was praising the intelligence that was gleaned from Abu Zubida(ph), and among the interrogation methods they used on him was water-boarding, which is a kind of a simulated drowning. Well, that was one of eight specific types of interrogation that was banned at the Pentagon. And over at the Pentagon they were announcing that.

And you had Lieutenant General Jeff Kimmons there saying no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. It was a dramatic divergence of views.

WERTHEIMER: What was the motivation behind the Pentagon making those changes?

HENDREN: Military lawyers had always been uncomfortable with a lot of these techniques for a number of different reasons. One of the reasons was that they really by and large don't seem to think that those techniques work. It also makes it very problematic to get that stuff into court. It's hard to say if someone's giving you good information if they're being tortured while they're doing it.

Commanders were also worried that if you do this to foreigners, they can do it to our troops abroad. And that was something that I think the uniformed military has been very concerned about.

WERTHEIMER: David, what is President Bush hoping to accomplish, do you think with this series of speeches, including the announcement that people are being moved from secret prisons to Guantanamo Bay?

GREENE: It was an extraordinarily orchestrated PR move and perhaps a face-saving one. The White House has been hammered on this issue of detainee treatment for a long time. The Supreme Court said in June that the Geneva accords, which protect detainee rights, need to be respected by the administration - the White House has had to repudiate its own tactics in the past.

So this was a day that with the focus on new Pentagon rules could've produced some bad news for the White House. Instead, in a really meticulous way, the White House tries to turn it into a day of good news. They talk about the CIA prisons, they say they were effective and there was a reason for them. But then they take another step. They say we're moving prisoners out of them, we're putting them in Guantanamo Bay, where they will be tried.

And so now we have the headlines, we're going to move these high-value terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, we're going to try them, and they send legislation to the Hill to have Congress set up military commissions to try these people at Guantanamo Bay, shifting the onus to Congress and saying, look, you better set up a procedure to try these people.

This also politically gave Republicans the ability to go out on the campaign trail and say Democrats are now standing in the way of trying these guys at Guantanamo Bay. So a few different steps. The result: turning a day of bad news, using a lot of PR, into a day of potentially good headlines.

WERTHEIMER: What about this question of how to try terrorists, these new high-value prisoners that are at Guantanamo? Is the Pentagon, John, going to be on the same page as the president on this one?

HENDREN: Ultimately the leadership of the Pentagon is going to have to be on the same page. But military lawyers have already shown a desire to buck the administration's plan. Just earlier this week you had military lawyers on Capitol Hill saying they had serious problems with the military commission set-up as it is. Brigadier General James Walker was one of them, and he said - he's a Marine who said no civilized country tries people without letting them see the evidence against them, and the United States should not be the first.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Pentagon correspondent John Hendren, and our White House reporter David Greene. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Linda.

HENDREN: Thank you, Linda.

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