In his confirmation hearing Thursday, Eric Holder, the president-elect's choice to be attorney general, said he thinks waterboarding is torture. But waterboarding, or simulated drowning, is just one of the "coercive interrogation" techniques used by the CIA after Sept. 11 to extract information from suspected terrorists. It will be up to the new president to decide which procedures will be off-limits under his administration. So far, he is getting conflicting advice.
During his campaign, Barack Obama spoke out against the use of anything like torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. He said that, as president, he would order all interrogations to be carried out in accordance with the U.S. Army Field Manual, guidelines that are far more restrictive than the ones President Bush has given the CIA.
Obama was supported in that position by a group of retired generals and admirals; as military officers, they worried that interrogation methods tantamount to torture might someday be used on American prisoners. About a dozen of them even asked for a meeting with Obama's transition team last month to make sure he wasn't backing down from his campaign promises. Among them was retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
"The Golden Rule is the Golden Rule — that you don't do something to someone that you wouldn't have done to an American citizen that was held for interrogation. And I think that's as true for a CIA operative as it is for a person in uniform," Hoar said.
The incoming Obama administration is also being pressured on this point by Congress; last year, it passed legislation that would have required CIA interrogators to abide by the Army Field Manual guidelines. President Bush vetoed the bill; but the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has introduced it again, as she reminded Holder during his confirmation hearing Thursday.
"It has been revised by the military. It is a comprehensive, thoughtful manual. It has more than a dozen different techniques," Feinstein said. "Do you believe that the Army Field Manual should comprise the standard for interrogation across the United States government?"
Holder, who has met with the retired military officers who favor that change, said President-elect Obama will make that call on his own.
"He's giving all components an opportunity to express their views — not only the military, but those on the intelligence side. If there's a contrary view, we want to give them an opportunity to make their case," Holder said.
There are contrary views. Many military officers not only worry about harsh interrogation methods being used against their own troops but also doubt the reliability of information gained under any procedure that resembles torture.
But outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden vigorously disputes the idea that the coercive methods used by CIA interrogators did not produce useful information.
"These techniques worked," Hayden insisted Thursday in a meeting with reporters. "I'm convinced," he said, "that the program got the maximum amount of information" — particularly out of the first group of detainees taken into custody after 9/11.
Hayden says there are various interrogation methods that are not in the Army Field Manual but that are nevertheless legal. For that reason, he argues against limiting CIA interrogators to the Army manual.
In his Senate testimony Thursday, Holder took the military's side in the debate over whose guidelines should govern CIA interrogations.
"It is my view, based on what I've had the opportunity to review and what I've been exposed to, that I think the Army Field Manual is adequate," he said.
Obama himself appears to be keeping his decision options open. He may be realizing that this issue, like others, is not clear-cut. John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, says the debate over which interrogation methods should be used is abstract until the day the U.S. government finds itself holding a terrorist who really does know about an upcoming attack on the United States.
"Then you do have a dilemma: Do you need to get that information, or do you not? If you don't get that information, have you failed in your moral responsibility to your fellow citizens? And it's only when it gets real that that debate begins to bite."
In the best case for the Obama administration, that scenario will not present itself — and there won't be a dilemma.