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One Code to Rule Them All

Congress owes it to America, our allies, and our soldiers to set clear standards for the treatment of detainees.

12:00 AM, Oct 4, 2005 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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FOOL ME ONCE, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. When it comes to detaining prisoners seized in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the other fronts of the terror war, the Pentagon's "just-trust-us" mentality continues to undercut American strategy. Thankfully, Congress is at last on the verge of doing what the administration clearly cannot: set clear standards for the treatment of detainees.

One of the clearest lessons of the Abu Ghraib scandal--as we were reminded this past weekend by the macabre tell-all television appearance of Army Pfc. Lynndie England--is that poorly-trained soldiers make poorly-behaved prison guards. Without standards and without supervision, such stressful situations are a disaster waiting to happen.

Nor is it just an Iraq problem: the weekend before Afghan president Hamid Karzai's visit this past May to the United States, where he was to sign a Strategic Partnership agreement with President Bush, the New York Times ran a front page article detailing the grisly deaths of two Afghan civilians at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base. The story--based on the Army's own 2,000-page confidential criminal investigation--details repeated incidents of abuse by soldiers at Bagram, clouding what should have been a moment of triumph in U.S.-Afghan relations.

Reviewing even the most cursory history of these incidents, it's apparent that confusion and lack of training--more than premeditated malice or moral failing--have been the determining factors in the misconduct of American soldiers. "They asked many, many times," says one former Bagram interrogator. "The lack of guidance was a source of frustration for them. My own feeling is that it was never given because nobody wanted to put themselves on the line."

NOT SO, says the Pentagon, which in its prosecution of the soldiers, argues that they should have been aware of the methods codified in the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation (FM 34-52) and used these standards to guide their treatment of detainees.

This line of reasoning, however, is more than a little ironic, given that the Pentagon is itself currently in the midst of a drag-out fight on Capitol Hill to stop Congress from enshrining the same Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for its interrogations. The relevant legislation--proposed by Senator John McCain and supported by a who's who of retired military and intelligence officers--would go a long way toward ending the climate of confusion and uncertainty that has contributed to abuses at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

In opposing the legislation, the Pentagon argues that it is not Congress's place to be arbiter of the rules for treatment of detainees, insisting that it alone should wield that power. It also warns, as spokesman Lawrence DiRita put it in a recent op-ed in USA Today, that by establishing a clear standard for interrogations, the amendment would "hamper the country's ability to readily adapt and update interrogation methods from Al Qaeda detainees who we know are trained to resist known interrogation techniques."

NEITHER OF THESE ARGUMENTS ARE PERSUASIVE. First, as supporters of the bill have pointed out, the amendment would do nothing to stop the Defense Department from revising and updating the field manual however and whenever it sees fit. In fact, this is precisely what the Pentagon is already in the midst of doing, adding a new classified annex. Contrary to the E-Ring's dire predictions, the notion that congressional oversight will somehow help terrorists study up and adapt to new interrogation techniques is just wrong.

Second, and more broadly, the well-documented pattern of abuses from Afghanistan to Iraq reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the Pentagon's prized "ambiguity." Despite the unique challenges posed by the war on terror, the Congress--and Republican conservatives, in particular--should be skeptical when the executive branch says, in effect, "Just trust us." Although it's understandable that the Defense Department would like to act with the maximum freedom of action, it has created a Balkanized set of standards in which different rules apply in different places, which plainly does not work. If ever there were an appropriate object for congressional oversight, this is it.

The consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment of detainees are plain to see. Again, set aside the obvious impact of Abu Ghraib and consider the less-publicized deaths at Bagram, which created a dangerous irritant in U.S.-Afghan relations. President Karzai, for instance, spent his trip to the United States on the defensive, forced to justify why he was calling for a long-term strategic partnership with Washington--including long-term access by the U.S. military to Afghan bases--in light of the murder of Afghan citizens by American soldiers. We're not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us, but harder for our friends to love us.

Further, the issue of detainee abuse has been a critical factor in the erosion of American support for these distant and frustrating wars here at home. There is broad consensus that the political status quo in the greater Middle East poses huge dangers, but there is equal uncertainty about our ability to achieve long-term reform in the region. Nothing undercuts our moral position here at home more than the issue of abuse.

Lastly, confusion on detainee treatment is also bad for America's soldiers, who deserve clear guidance from their commanders. As a collective letter by several dozen retired general officers noted, the net effect of the current Pentagon policy is that service members have been given conflicting instructions, then "left to take the blame when things went wrong."

Given its management of this issue to date, the Defense Department's sniping at the McCain amendment is off the mark. The proposed legislation is not congressional micro-management, but an entirely proper demand that the Pentagon itself set a clear policy--as it should have done long ago.

Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk are resident fellow and research fellow, respectively, at the American Enterprise Institute.