In its way, it is a sign of a return to normality. For decades, the CIA was spooked by the possibility of congressional hearings and lawsuits into forswearing any risk-taking acts. Immediately after 9/11, everyone agreed that the CIA needed a down-and-dirty ability to operate in the twilight world of our enemies. Now, five years later, CIA officers are scared of lawsuits again.
According to The Washington Post, CIA counterterrorism officers are rushing to buy legal insurance. They worry about their exposure in conducting interrogations that have broken up ongoing plots and helped roll up much of al-Qaida's top ranks. President Bush wants legislation defining prosecutable conduct more precisely, but key Republican senators are resisting it, on the grounds, apparently, that the CIA should be able to fend off terrorists and lawyers all at once.
Bush's speech last week detailing how terrorists Khalid Sheik Mohammed (the mastermind of 9/11 known as KSM) and Abu Zubaydah were made to talk using "special" interrogation techniques in secret CIA prisons overseas was an overdue entry into a debate dominated by the administration's critics. In a key victory for them, the Department of Defense has released a new field manual that authorizes only noncoercive techniques. The toughest allowable method is separating a detainee from his comrades, and this requires the approval of a four-star combatant commander.
This overly restrictive standard is likely to migrate across the U.S. government and apply to the CIA as well. This is foolish, because the CIA doesn't deal with lawful, captured enemy soldiers — who should indeed be protected from coercive interrogations — as the military does. Instead, the agency handles terrorists who might have information that can save countless lives.
One reason critics have been faring so well in this debate is that they dishonestly conflate basically any interrogation method not acceptable in a domestic-criminal context with "torture." According to ABC News, six extraordinary techniques were approved for use against top-level terrorism suspects, including shaking and slapping, stress positions, cold cells and "waterboarding" (simulated drowning). Some of these techniques aren't close to torture; others could be torture depending on their severity; and waterboarding is close to, or perhaps over, the line.