Interrogation Policy Still A Bit Shadowy

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For a year now, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been on a crusade against torture. Her principal weapon was a piece of legislation that passed in February, was opposed by John McCain and later vetoed by President Bush. The bill would have required the intelligence community to follow the Army Field Manual. It was a clear, simple solution to the legal mush that interrogation policy has become. The manual is incredibly specific about what techniques are allowed (mostly pyschological) and what techniques are forbidden (waterboarding, mock execution, beatings, etc.). “The national debate over torture will end if this amendment to place the CIA under the Army Field Manual becomes law,” she said a year ago. “This amendment is a matter of strong principle. It is the bedrock on which the United States stands.”

Now Feinstein is set to take over the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the next president, Barack Obama, is a man who supported the Army Field Manual bill. So everything should be pretty open and shut, right?

The answer is no. Read closely this passage from today’s New York Times.

[I]n an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.

Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: “The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them.”

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, another top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he would consult with the C.I.A. and approve interrogation techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual as long as they were “legal, humane and noncoercive.” But Mr. Wyden declined to say whether C.I.A. techniques ought to be made public.

Wyden, for the record, was a cosponsor of Feinstein’s Army Field Manual bill. To be clear, neither Feinstein nor Wyden are calling for a continuation of current policy. But it is just not clear what they are now willing to accept. All we know is that they are willing to reopen discussions. And that is different from the stick-to-the-Field-Manual rhetoric of the election season.

UPDATE: An aide to Feinstein contacted me this evening to say that the New York Times cut off part of her statement to the paper. That full statement, however, seems to only confirm the Times’ suggestion that Feinstein is backing away from the Army Field Manual standard for all interrogations, in favor of an alternative, still undefined, “single standard across the government.” More to come. In the meantime, here is the Feinstein statement in full, which was given to the Times to clarify a comment Feinstein made in a Tuesday interview with the paper:

“The law must reflect a single, clear standard across the government, and right now the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual,” Senator Feinstein said. “I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new Administration to consider them. However, my intent is to pass a law that effectively bans torture, complies with all laws and treaties, and provides a single standard across the government.”