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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Sitting in for Renee Montagne, I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President BILL CLINTON: Believe me, I've never even discussed this with anybody before. I'm just - you and I are having the first conversation I've ever had.

INSKEEP: That's former President Bill Clinton. And the subject of that conversation was how to interrogate terror suspects.

President CLINTON: I think in balance we should strictly adhere to the Geneva Conventions and we should honor it.

INSKEEP: Bill Clinton's remarks come in the middle of congressional debate over how to put terror suspects on trial. That debate also involves allowing coerced testimony and reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions.

NEARY: President Bush says he wants clarity on the Geneva rules, and he said in a recent speech that the CIA has used what he called alternative means of interrogation.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough and they were safe and lawful and necessary.

NEARY: Former President Clinton offered a different view in a conversation from New York. He was attending a meeting of corporate and government leaders called the Clinton Global Initiative. We are hearing his views on that conference elsewhere in today's program.

INSKEEP: During an interview with NPR, the subject turned to terrorism. President Clinton is one of the few people who have viewed national security as it looks from the desk in the Oval Office.

Is it sometimes necessary to coerce or torture people in order to protect national security, to get information that you believe you really need?

President CLINTON: Well, I think as a policy it's an error. I think that the Geneva Conventions are there for a reason. I think that, number one, it's consistent with our values. Number two, it's consistent with our interests.

There have been repeated examples where a pattern policy of torture produces -sometimes it'll get you something you don't know that's worthwhile, but more often than not it just gets people to lie to tell you whatever you want to hear to keep beating the living daylights out of them. And when you do it, you run the risk that your own people, if captured, will be tortured in return. That's the reason, apart from the humanitarian moral reason, that the world has moved away from torture, the reason that Senator McCain and others passed that prohibition.

Now the president says that he's just trying to get the rules clear about how far the CIA can go when they're whacking these people around in these secret prisons. And most Americans would probably think, well, I'd be happy to have somebody beat up if it kept somebody from blowing up another bomb, like another 9/11. I get that. But I think it's important to remember there's a reason that the entire military apparatus is opposed to torture, so…

INSKEEP: Well, as you know, some of the president's supporters have said any president needs the option; you never know what might come up. Does the president need the option, speaking as someone who's been there?

President CLINTON: Look, if the president needed the option, there's all kinds of things they could do. Let's take the best case, okay? You've picked up somebody that you know is the number two aide to Osama bin Laden. And you know that they have an operation planned for the United States or some European capital sometime in the next three days, and you know this guy knows it. All right? That's the clearest example. And you think that you can only get it out of this guy either by shooting him full of some drug or waterboarding him or otherwise working him over. If they really believe that that scenario is likely to occur, let them come forward with an alternative proposal.

We have a system of laws here where nobody should be above the law, and you don't need blanket advanced approval for blanket torture. They could draw a statute much more narrowly which would permit the president to make a finding in a case like I just outlined, and then that finding to be submitted, even if after the fact, to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

INSKEEP: But that there would be some responsibility afterward for what was done. That's what you're saying?

President CLINTON: Yeah. Well the president could take personal responsibility for it, but you do it on a case-by-case basis and there'd be some review of it.

INSKEEP: Do you think that scenario you laid out is actually a likely scenario at some point?

President CLINTON: No, I don't know if it's likely or not, but you don't make laws based on that. You don't sit there and say, in general, torture is fine if you're a terrorist suspect. For one thing, we know we have erred in who was a real suspect or not. We know that there are people who have been deported, people who have been jailed for long periods of time, people who have been put through all this who weren't terrorists at all, who weren't terrorist sympathizers, didn't have any terrorist contacts. So you don't want to go around with some blanket law saying that it's okay to violate the Geneva Conventions.

The president says he doesn't want the CIA agents who do this hard work to be in the dark. So there's a way to avoid being in the dark. If they really believe that the time comes when they only way they can get a reliable piece of information is to beat it out of somebody, or put a drug in their body to talk it out of them, then they can present it to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or some other court, just under the same circumstances we do with wiretaps: post facto.

The only case I can imagine where, you know, 100 percent of the people would agree with me is under the circumstances I just outlined. That is, I think you'd have a very hard time finding somebody to say if you knew this guy was a top aide of al-Qaida, if you knew that there was going to be an attack in three days, if you knew that that person knew, then I'd like to see the world standup and say that they person who obtained the information from him shouldn't be sent to jail. I don't think you'd have to worry about that.

But I think if you go around passing laws that legitimize a violation of the Geneva Convention and institutionalize what happened at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, we're going to be in real trouble.

INSKEEP: That's former President Bill Clinton speaking yesterday in New York.

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