Bush’s executive order on torture leaves many questions unanswered


Just what is the CIA doing and what is forbidden?

President Bush’s executive order barring the Central Intelligence Agency from “cruel and inhumane treatment” of terror suspects explicitly forbids murder, sexual abuse and religious denigration. But the order, issued last week, leaves open the possibility of using so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” including water-boarding, stress positions, and sensory and sleep deprivation.

All of these techniques are outlawed in the Geneva Conventions and in the U.S. Army’s “Field Manual for Interrogations.” (PDF)

Under the new order, CIA detainees are to “receive the basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.”

Experts believe that the order came after CIA officers, afraid of legal scrutiny after Bush leaves office in less than two years, suspended questionable interrogation techniques.

“Because CIA officers are wary of retroactive investigations and criminal prosecutions, the president issued this order to provide legal cover for them,” said Tom Maertens, a former deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

White House aides, speaking to the press over the past several days, have repeatedly avoided specifying what is allowed in the broad language of the five-page order.

Instead, they emphasized the importance of using humane, but unconventional means to extract critical intelligence information from terror suspects.

But Holly Ziemer, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture, said that “torture is the most ineffective way of getting actionable intelligence.”

In a response to the executive order, the center said in a statement that it was encouraged by the effort to end harsh techniques, but added that it “cannot be confident the CIA is not using these techniques until the program has more transparency — especially when sleep is not listed as a basic necessity in the executive order.”

Buried in the unclassified part of the order is what the Bush administration defines as the “basic necessities of life.” The order doesn’t permit detainees to communicate with their families through the International Committee of the Red Cross. But it does protect them from acts “serious enough to cause… murder, torture, mutilation…or acts intended to denigrate the religion of an individual.”

Asked if the Bush administration is changing its course on treatment of detainees, Maertens, who now lives in Minnesota, said the administration “is making an effort to give the impression that they are changing the course.” But, he added, “Its record isn’t so good.”