How Do You Un-Torture Someone?

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The Washington Post leads the paper today with a story about how a “clean team” from the FBI and the military re-interrogated the 9/11 suspects who will be put on trial on capital murder charges, collecting the same information the CIA obtained from five of the six under far harsher conditions at secret prisons.:

To ensure that the data would not be tainted by allegations of torture or illegal coercion, the FBI and military team won the suspects’ trust over the past 16 months by using time-tested rapport-building techniques, the officials said.

I’m not a lawyer, and this double-tracking may indeed bolster their case in front of a jury in the military system, which gives prosecutors more leeway than they have in civilian courts. These trials will be conducted, moreover, under revamped rules, put into place after the Supreme Court in 2006 struck down the military tribunals that were being held at Guantanamo.

But this revelation that the government felt the need for an interrogation do-over actually hurts the Bush Administration’s case in the court of international public opinion. It also jeopardizes the legitimacy of any verdict that comes out of these trials. First, it seems to acknowledge that the CIA was on shaky legal ground with what are euphemistically known as coercive interrogation techniques. Second, it raises the question: If this information was obtainable through “time-tested rapport-building techniques,” why didn’t they use them in the first place? (Indeed, FBI Director Robert Mueller–whose agency deals with its share of tough characters, including Saddam Hussein–told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that his agency never uses “coercive techniques of any sort” and has found the ones it does use “sufficient and appropriate.”)

And the biggest issue is the one raised by a former judge advocate general near the end of the Washington Post story:

“There’s something in American jurisprudence called ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’: You can clean up the tree a little but it’s hard to do,” said John D. Hutson, a retired Navy rear admiral and former judge advocate general. “Once you torture someone, it is hard to un-torture them. The general public is going to be concerned about the validity of the testimony.”