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Harsh Interrogation Methods Raise Questions

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Detroit.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West. Today, we know far more about the Bush administration's harsh interrogation program than we did a week ago. The Justice Department released more than a hundred pages of legal guidance that was given to the CIA, and a Senate committee released a detailed report on the military's use of harsh interrogation methods. In a few moments, we'll hear about the debate that's shaping up in Congress. First, NPR's Ari Shapiro provides an overview of the many questions that remain unanswered.

ARI SHAPIRO: Take out your mental calendar. In March of 2002, the CIA picked up a terrorism suspect named Abu Zubaida. In August of that year, the Justice Department authorized the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques on Zubaida. So here's unanswered question number one, from Karen Greenberg of NYU's Center on Law and Security.

Professor KAREN GREENBERG (Center on Law and Security, New York University): What were they doing to him in that intervening period of time? And we don't know.

SHAPIRO: Abu Zubaida's description of his treatment is classified. His lawyers have made it clear they believe that Zubaida was tortured before the Justice Department authorized harsh interrogations. So, Aziz Huq of University of Chicago Law School wants to know whether the CIA was operating under any kind of legal guidance for those first five months that they had Zubaida.

Professor AZIZ HUQ (University of Chicago Law School): Are there verbal conversations in which lawyers from the Justice Department are saying yes, no, these measures are or are not okay? Those communications may never have been reduced to writing, or at least until August 2002. But do they exist?

SHAPIRO: We don't know. In August of 2002, Justice Department identified the line between harsh interrogations and torture. But one memo shows the CIA crossed that line. Interrogators waterboarded people more than they were supposed to, and there are other instances of people torturing detainees, even using the Bush administration's very limited definition of torture. Professor Greenberg tells the story of one detainee who was interviewed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Prof. GREENBERG: A detainee by the name of Bin Attash, who says that he was shackled with his hands above his head for a two-week-long period, and the memos are specific about shackling - as, if you're going to be in that position, being only that way for two hours, or your arms can be kept in a different position.

SHAPIRO: So, when it comes to waterboarding and shackling, it seems CIA interrogators went beyond the Justice Department's definition of torture. But those are only narrow slices of information.

Professor BRIAN TAMANAHA (St. Johns University): I think it's important to find out whether or not the limits, the stated limits were adhered to or violated as a routine matter.

SHAPIRO: This is St. Johns law professor Brian Tamanaha.

Prof. TAMANAHA: I'd like to know how many times people were slammed against the wall.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department said more than 30 times, and it's torture.

Prof. TAMANAHA: And I would like to know how those numbers were kept. Was someone sitting there with a clicker counting each time?

SHAPIRO: The same goes for shutting someone in a small box, or sleep deprivation. Did the hours exceed the legal limit? This information used to be documented. The CIA videotaped many interrogations, but the agency destroyed those tapes. There's an ongoing investigation into the tapes' destruction. Still, ACLU attorney Amrit Singh has hope. She says the CIA's inspector general finished a classified report in 2004.

Ms. AMRIT SINGH (ACLU Attorney): This report was relating to improprieties within the CIA interrogation and detention program. So we hope that it'll contain factual details of what the CIA was actually doing to its prisoners.

SHAPIRO: The ACLU has sued to get that report. There's also a question about the whereabouts of the detainees themselves. According to one Justice Department memo, by May of 2005, 94 people were in CIA detention.

Ms. SINGH: Fourteen of those were transferred to Guantanamo, but we don't know what happened to the remainder of them. It appears that dozens of individuals were actually disappeared, possibly to third countries.

SHAPIRO: And we know almost nothing about what the U.S. has asked other countries to do, says Professor Aziz Huq.

Prof. HUQ: We have bits and pieces of what we're asking Egypt to do, what we're asking Morocco to do, what we're asking Syria to do, what we're asking Pakistan to do. But that part of the puzzle is totally left off the table.

SHAPIRO: And with all those unanswered questions looming, it becomes clear why the ACLU believes the release of the torture memos is the beginning, not the end of the process.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.