Looking Forward, Not Backward: Refining American Interrogation Law

The Brookings Institution


The worldwide scandal spurred by the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Afghanistan and secret CIA prisons during the Bush Administration has been a stain on America’s honor and a catastrophe for our national image. Understandably eager to save innocent lives by breaking the resistance of a few Al Qaeda leaders, Bush and his aides went way overboard. Instead of crafting special rules to allow for exceptionally tough interrogations of those few leaders and maintaining strict limits to ensure that those interrogations stopped short of torture, the Bush team chose to gut the laws, rules and customs restraining coercive interrogations. They did this with a public bravado and an ostentatious disregard for international law that both scandalized world opinion and sent dangerous signals down through the ranks. These signals contributed to lawlessness and to confusion about what the rules were supposed to be. They helped open the floodgates both to CIA excesses widely seen as torture and to brutal treatment by the military of hundreds of small-fry and mistakenly-arrested innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan and of an unknown number of prisoners at Guantánamo. All this inspired widespread international and domestic revulsion and gravely undermined America’s political and moral standing and ability to work with some allied governments.

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