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A time of fear


It has been a painful week. You think that the passage of five years has lessened the pain, and then you see the first replay of the first plane hitting the first tower.

Time has not only not lessened the pain, it seems to have heightened it. There has been time to collect the photographs, to compile the videotapes, to gather the stories of children who lost parents in the terrorists' attacks.

In the midst of the pain, there's a reluctance to talk about public policy and 9/11 in the same breath, to worry about "politicizing" the tragedy. But discussions about public policy cannot be avoided. The president didn't hesitate to tie 9/11 to public policy in his address to the nation on Monday night. Candidates are tying 9/11 to public policy in their campaigns this fall. And the rest of us must do the same.

As we mourn the victims, we should also mourn what is happening to the principles of this nation in the wake of 9/11, in the hands of this most dangerous administration.

Last week the president admitted that we have held prisoners in secret locations outside the United States and that we have used an "alternative set of procedures" to try to get intelligence from them.

He seemed, briefly, to agree with critics that the United States must abide by the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture and humiliation of prisoners. The president said that while we have held some "high-value" detainees in secret prisons, we are moving them to Guantanamo, where they'll be treated with "the humanity that they denied others."

But true to form, what the administration gave with one hand, it wants to take away with the other. It's trying to push through a law that would permit the CIA to go right on holding prisoners in secret locations, torturing them and denying them their rights under international law.

In the trials of Guantanamo prisoners, the government would be able to use hearsay evidence and could deny prisoners access to evidence being used against them.

The legislation, according to a Washington Post editorial, "would define compliance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions --- which prohibits certain cruel and humiliating treatment of detainees --- so as to allow categories of conduct the article clearly forbids."

And, said the Post, "it would eliminate most judicial review of detention policies."

The president has said that the Army Field Manual will make it clear that the military cannot torture prisoners. But according to a New York Times report, the legislation the administration is seeking "would leave open the possibility that the military could revise its own standards to allow the harsher techniques."

Ah, but in a time of war, the argument goes, torture's sometimes necessary to get information we need to protect ourselves. But as many people have pointed out, our trashing of the Geneva Conventions invites others to do the same. And our soldiers will suffer the consequences.

Just as important, a growing number of experts are insisting that torture doesn't work, because prisoners are likely to tell their captors what they want to hear to put an end to their mistreatment. Those experts insist that humane interrogation is more effective.

And late last week, NPR reporter Steve Inskeep pulled some significant testimony out of FBI Director Robert Mueller. In an interview for the September 8 Morning Edition program, Inskeep questioned Mueller about FBI interrogations. Mueller said repeatedly that he was speaking only about the FBI, that he was not addressing issues related to the military or the CIA, but his discussion was telling.

Inskeep asked whether the FBI uses coercive methods in its interrogations. It does not and it can not, Mueller replied.

"Has it been a disadvantage that the FBI cannot coerce testimony?" asked Inskeep.

"I am comfortable that the way we undertake our interviews and the standards set over a number of years are sufficient to enable us to do our jobs," said Mueller.

"You can't coerce testimony," Inskeep repeated.

"We cannot coerce testimony," said Mueller.

Why? There are "a variety of reasons," said Mueller, including a belief in "what works and what does not work."

"Our belief is that we should stay with that which has served us well over the years," said Mueller.

And what is that? "You cannot use coercion," said Mueller.

"Is there any scenario under which you have indicated to your agents that coercion might be necessary?" asked Inskeep.

Mueller's answer: No.

Inskeep raised a hypothetical challenge that torture advocates often raise: "a nuclear bomb might explode tomorrow and you've got a suspect in custody, and he might know where it is and what to do."

"I think that is a very, very difficult issue," said Mueller. "But I am comfortable with our practices as they have been applied in the past and as I anticipate they will be applied in the future."

"And those practices are that you would not coerce that witness?" asked Inskeep.

"We would not," said Mueller. "We would not."

(You can hear the Inskeep-Mueller interview at