The Evolution of the Pentagon's Interrogation Policy

by TChris

A number of military lawyers have objected to the Bush administration's aggressive use of coercive techniques to interrogate detainees. The administration, of course, refused to listen. It continued a policy of cruel mistreatment while assuring the public that detainees were all treated humanely.

Writing in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer tells the story of Alberto Mora's effort to persuade the Pentagon to obey the law. As general counsel of the Navy, Mora challenged the administration's "disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects." Crucial to the story is a 22 page memo (pdf) marked "secret."

It reveals that Mora's criticisms of Administration policy were unequivocal, wide-ranging, and persistent. Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush's decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as "unlawful," "dangerous," and "erroneous" novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse.

In important ways, Mora's memo is at odds with the official White House narrative. In 2002, President Bush declared that detainees should be treated "humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles" of the Geneva conventions. The Administration has articulated this standard many times. ... Mora's memo, however, shows that almost from the start of the Administration's war on terror the White House, the Justice Department, and the Department of Defense, intent upon having greater flexibility, charted a legally questionable course despite sustained objections from some of its own lawyers.

Mora understands what's at stake in the administration's use of cruelty as a weapon in its war against terror.

"If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America--even those designated as 'unlawful enemy combatants.' If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It's a transformative issue."

Mora's concerns reached Donald Rumsfeld.

"His attitude was 'What's the big deal?' " [a former administration] official said.

At that point, John Yoo was enlisted to write his infamous memo justifying the use of torture against detainees.

"The memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President's Commander-in-Chief authority," Mora wrote in his account.

Unlike Mora's reasoned analysis, Yoo's take was what the administration wanted to hear.

Mora knew that there would be no [policy] discussion; as the Administration saw it, the question would be settled by Yoo's opinion.

Worse, Mora was kept in the dark as to the administration's actual policy.

Without Mora's knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version ... aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade.

This is a powerful story. Mora believes he "witnessed both a moral and a legal tragedy" during his tenure at the Pentagon. Now that he's free to do so, he's telling the truth about what he saw. What will the White House do to discredit him?

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    Re: The Evolution of the Pentagon's Interrogation (none / 0) (#1)
    by cpinva on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 11:23:18 PM EST
    in addition to the direct attack on our constitutional guarantees, this policy represents an inherent danger to our very own military personnel, a danger recognized by sen. mccain, himself a former pow. our gov't would be hard pressed to complain, if any of our people were treated similarly, by any enemy of the u.s. in effect, this administration has opened the door, it remains only for someone to walk in. i suspect, should the situation arise, they'll refuse to take any responsibility. their past remains their prologue.

    Re: The Evolution of the Pentagon's Interrogation (none / 0) (#2)
    by profmarcus on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 02:50:40 AM EST
    mora simply adds his voice to the chorus of those decrying the bush administration's illegal, indefensible and inhumane policies... but never let it be said that bushco pays the slightest bit of attention to voices raised in opposition to its criminal ways, no matter how many, no matter how credible, no matter how forceful...
    The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has launched a passionate attack on President George Bush, saying his administration's refusal to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay camp reflected "a society that is heading towards George Orwell's Animal Farm".
    you accuse george bush of being orwellian...? tsk, tsk... but, wait, there's more...
    "The main building block of a democratic society is that everyone is equal before the law, innocent until proved otherwise, and has the right to legal representation. If the guilt of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is beyond doubt, why are the Americans afraid to bring them to trial? [...] The events of 9/11 cannot erase the rule of law and international obligations.
    wait just a cotton-pickin' minute... i distinctly heard george say that 9/11 "changed everything..." he suspended geneva for terrorist detainees because they were not "enemy combatants..." he sought a department of justice opinion that declared he was not subject to the u.n. conventions against torture... he's adopted the theory of the "unitary executive..." he put john bolton in as u.n. ambassador without senate confirmation to reinforce unilateral action by the u.s. in foreign policy and to circumvent u.n. policies... he's ignored f.i.s.a. and conducted warrantless spying on countless citizens in the u.s... and, you, honorable archbishop, say that 9/11 "cannot erase the rule of law and international obligations...?" you obviously haven't been paying attention... Visit my blog: And, yes, I DO take it personally

    Re: The Evolution of the Pentagon's Interrogation (none / 0) (#3)
    by Al on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 12:44:08 PM EST
    The military are exactly the wrong people to fight the kind of war where the enemy is decentralized and invisible, doesn't wear a uniform, never engages in an open battle, or wave any nation's flag. The basic premise of Guantanamo, that you can get useful information out of someone by bringing them to the point of organ failure, is all wrong. Not only is it immoral, it doesn't even work.
    Brant informed Mora that he was disturbed by what his agents told him about the conduct of military-intelligence interrogators at Guantánamo. These officials seemed poorly trained, Brant said, and were frustrated by their lack of success.
    Unfortunately this state of affairs is likely to continue. For one thing, the people who ordered this, starting with Rumsfeld and Bush himself, are not going to suddenly come to their senses and admit to the horrors they have mandated. They will continue to prevaricate as long as they can. And they will continue to present Guantanamo as getting tough with terrorists, to hide their incompetence as well as their depravity.

    Re: The Evolution of the Pentagon's Interrogation (none / 0) (#4)
    by The Heretik on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 05:52:30 PM EST
    No, Rumsfeld isn't going to suddenly come to his senses. September Eleventh did change everything in one significant way. Righteous vengeance wreaked upon the suspected guilty but not proven is the order of the day. And what would happen in dark places now sees some light of day . It clearly will take more than the voice of one more lawyer for things to change.