Outside editorial: Unlikely heroes emerge from torture scandal

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Almost every scandal produces unlikely heroes, workaday or even flawed men and women who don't make headlines but perform courageous acts of conscience, often behind the scenes and in the face of enormous pressure.

Several such characters emerged recently from what has otherwise been a disgraceful chapter of American history involving the abuse of foreign detainees held by U.S. forces in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq. An extensive report released last week by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General is the first official document to lay out in exhaustive detail the extent of the fissures created within the administration because of disagreements over interrogation and detention policies. The report depicts the struggles of several Justice Department and FBI officials to thwart interrogation tactics they considered ineffective at best and illegal at worst. In the process, they stuck their necks out by clashing with military and CIA interrogators and Defense Department and CIA higher-ups, and they pressed their case at the White House, even when that task seemed futile.

It was Pasquale D'Amuro, chief of counterintelligence at the FBI, who first directed FBI agents based in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 to have nothing to do with interrogations that included snarling dogs, prolonged sleep deprivation, 20-hour interrogation sessions, hooding and sexual humiliation, among other things. These techniques, which were approved at "the highest levels," according to the report, not only violated the bureau's standards, they were also less effective in gleaning reliable information and probably breached domestic and international prohibitions against torture, Mr. D'Amuro argued. He worried - presciently so - that information extracted using coercive methods would "taint" the government's ability to prosecute detainees; this month, charges were dropped against Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the detainees subjected to abusive interrogation techniques.

Many others in the Justice Department and the FBI are cited in the 370-page report as having fought the administration's destructive policies, like some military lawyers who were previously reported to have objected. The FBI agents who reported questionable interrogation tactics - identified in the inspector general's report only by pseudonyms - should be applauded. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III should also be commended for, soon after learning about other agencies' use of abusive techniques, directing agents to rely only on the tested and non-coercive methods authorized by the bureau. Lawyers in the Justice Department's criminal division argued strenuously against harsh techniques, even as colleagues in the Office of Legal Counsel were surreptitiously trying to legally justify those acts.

It is disheartening, once again, to read about the abuse committed by U.S. personnel in the name of protecting the American people. It is disturbing to know that those who signed off on such abuse had ample warning about the error of their ways. It is reassuring, however, that many within government understood - even in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 - that protecting the country and respecting its values are not mutually exclusive propositions.

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