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Interrogations Must Follow Army Field Manual

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama not only ordered that the Guantanamo prison be closed, he also put a halt to the CIA's use of extreme interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists. His order requires U.S. intelligence agencies to abide by the guidelines laid down in the Army Field Manual. Mr. Obama had promised throughout his campaign to put an end to any practices that resemble torture. Still, his move left some questions unanswered, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Since his election, Barack Obama has made moves to show he's strong on national security, asking Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on, appointing retired Marine General James Jones as his national security advisor, and choosing another retired four-star officer, Admiral Dennis Blair, to serve as director of national intelligence. Mr. Obama said yesterday that making the CIA revise its interrogation policies does not mean his administration won't be fighting terrorism.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 22, 2009)

President BARACK OBAMA: We are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.

GJELTEN: One provision of yesterday's executive order prohibits the CIA from holding any detainees in secret prisons. Not a big change; those prisons are all closed anyway, according to U.S. officials. Another provision says all people detained by the U.S. government must now be treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions. That is a change. Interrogation practices are now to be governed by guidelines laid down in the U.S. Army Field Manual. But the executive order also sets up a task force, co-chaired by the attorney general and secretary of defense, to evaluate whether the interrogation guidelines in the Army Manual, quote, provide an appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the nation, unquote. Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday it may have been better to do that study before changing the interrogation policies.

Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan; Ranking Republican, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence): Yeah, we really had put the cart before the horse. We've determined policy without going through the analysis.

GJELTEN: The outgoing CIA director, Michael Hayden, claims coercive interrogation techniques used on high-value detainees actually produced valuable information about planned terrorist plots. Those techniques were authorized on a case-by-case basis by senior Bush administration officials, including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The new order prohibits interrogation techniques not in the Army Manual, but Hoekstra notes that it also includes a provision under which the attorney general could in the future provide, quote, further guidance, unquote, on what intelligence officers can and cannot do while interrogating detainees.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: That doesn't sound much different than what we have today.

GJELTEN: It's a balancing act for the Obama administration to ensure nothing like torture happens again during interrogation while at the same time, leaving room for whatever flexibility may be needed. While the new executive orders were being signed, the Senate Intelligence Committee was considering Admiral Blair's nomination to be the new director of national intelligence. Blair said he's heard the argument that coercive interrogations may provide valuable information, but he said the tactical benefit of intelligence gained that way has to be weighed against the damage caused to America's reputation by using those harsh techniques.

(Soundbite of congressional hearing)

Admiral DENNIS C. BLAIR (U.S. Navy; Nominee, Director of National Intelligence, Barack Obama Administration): And in my experience, America's reputation is what has others doing the right thing when we're not watching. That's very important. It's been a great benefit to us over the years. And that has a great value of itself.

GJELTEN: Blair faced a few tough questions during his confirmation hearing, but he appears likely to be approved easily as the new overseer of all U.S. intelligence operations. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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