DETERMINING THE most effective way to interrogate prisoners in the war on terror has proved to be tricky business for the Bush administration, practically and politically. The sudden release this week of classified directives, memos and legal analyses clearly was designed to settle the question of the administration's inclination toward torture. It provided President Bush with yet another opportunity to emphatically disavow the use of torture in interrogating detainees.
It also allowed the administration to engage in a little revisionist history.
The Justice Department now rejects as overly broad an August 2002 staff memo that suggested the United States could legally supersede international anti-torture laws. The memo caused a storm of protest when disclosed this month; it and all others related to this issue are being reviewed.
Mr. Bush's drop in opinion polls and the public outrage over the administration's perceived acceptance of torture led this usually secretive White House to take the unusual step of declassifying hundreds of documents. But Mr. Bush's political motivation did have a positive outcome --the public can now view with some dispassion the administration's struggle over how best to proceed in an arena of utmost importance to the U.S. mission in Iraq and elsewhere.
In this post-9/11 world, the necessity of acquiring reliable intelligence on possible terrorist attacks cannot be overstated. The same can be said of information on insurgency forces operating in Iraq, operatives who are killing scores of U.S. soldiers and civilians there and upending U.S. plans for a new Middle East. The documents show the conflicts inherent in this debate:
The president believes he had the right to deny Geneva Conventions protections to some prisoners in Afghanistan, and yet cites American values that demand humane treatment of detainees.
The request of top Pentagon officials to use two harsh interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, including suffocation simulation, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's rejection of both.
The Pentagon's chief legal counsel denies use of an interrogation method that calls for threatening detainees with death for themselves or their families. While the technique may be legal, the lawyer noted that U.S. soldiers were trained to engage in "a standard of interrogation that reflects a tradition of restraint."
The release of this select group of documents provides an inside view of the Bush administration's deliberations on a gravely serious matter. But the material fails to explain the relationship between these intense discussions in Washington, the administration-approved interrogation methods (which for a time included stripping prisoners of their clothes), and the dreadful, inhumane actions of a group of soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.
The American people deserve a more full accounting of the administration's policies and directives on prisoner interrogation methods to understand what went wrong on that prison tier and to ensure that it won't happen again.