There's legitimate interrogation, and then there's torture. Doug Feith is confident interrogators just know the difference.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 15 2008 7:48 PM

Feith in the System

There's legitimate interrogation, and then there's torture. Doug Feith is confident interrogators just know the difference.

Douglas Feith. Click image to expand.
Doug Feith

Doug Feith—former undersecretary of defense for policy—has been described as an "intellectual engine" (by his former boss Don Rumsfeld) and, famously, "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth" (by Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan). Based on Feith's performance this morning before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, I would say he is more like one of those cans that erupt with an exploding snake. No matter who the questioner or what the question, Feith responds with a jolt of explosive, affronted outrage.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

You may recall Feith's explosive, affronted outrage from last month's episode of congressional hearings, when he refused to show up as scheduled before this same subcommittee because he was unwilling to appear alongside another witness, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell. (Wilkerson is evidently more in the Tommy Franks camp, having once said of Feith, "Seldom have I met a dumber man.")

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The reason Feith has been summoned to testify is that he was allegedly one of the men who saw to it that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, including Common Article 3 of the conventions, which bars humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners. The source of this claim is seated to his right this morning. British lawyer Philippe Sands, in his recent book, The Torture Team, quotes from a lengthy interview with Feith in which Feith claims to have been "really a player" in the Bush administration's decision-making about the applicability of Geneva at Guantanamo. In Sands' version, Feith viewed himself and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as having been of one mind on the Geneva Conventions. The argument Feith made to the president in January 2002 seems to have been something like this: The Geneva Conventions are terrifically important. The best way to protect them is by honoring its "incentive system," which rewards soldiers who fight openly and in uniforms with all sorts of POW protections. But that meant not "promiscuously hand[ing] out POW status to fighters who don't obey the rules." In other words, the best way to protect the Geneva Conventions is to gut them.

Sands claims in his book that Feith argued against providing Guantanamo prisoners with the protections of Common Article 3. Feith, in a passionate opening statement this morning, insists he never made "any argument against common Article 3" and in fact was "receptive to the view that common Article 3 should be used." Moreover, he says he urged that as a matter of "policy," if not law, the president should pledge to treat the prisoners humanely, which is precisely what the president pledged to do. Feith particularly objects to Sands' claim that Feith agreed that removing all interrogation constraints at Gitmo was "the point." Feith says—several times—that Sands' account is so inaccurate as to "impeach him as a commentator." Luckily, Sands still has the tape of this exchange and offers to provide it to the committee.

Committee Republicans spend a whole lot of time this morning trying to top Feith's outraged affrontedness, but none quite matches him. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., harrumphs that this is "about the 10th hearing by the subcommittee about the rights of terrorists," but there have been none "to protect the lives of U.S. citizens." Darrell Issa, R-Calif., will spend his morning suggesting that Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harmon were somehow instrumental in setting U.S. torture policy because they were briefed on it. He even wonders whether they might be forced to testify before the committee. And Steve King, R-Iowa, tells of that terrible day on Sept. 11 when his own grown sons vowed that "if there is one more attack, we're all going to join the military." King cautions the committee not to judge Feith and his Bush administration colleagues who "were working while that smoking hole was burning," even though the memos at issue were written over a year after the smoke had cleared. King will spend the morning obstructing everyone and everything on general principle, including the boilerplate language used by Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., in trying to adjourn the hearing.

Feith makes short work of the committee with the standard-issue Bush administration ploy of blaming others. He is quick to say it was "lawyers in charge" who ultimately opposed applying Common Article 3 at Gitmo. He goes to great lengths to emphasize that the request for harsher interrogation techniques came up from the U.S. Southern Command and not from the top down. He testifies that he relied on Jim Haynes—Rumsfeld's general counsel—for legal conclusions because he was just a "policy official." Mercifully, he avoids the early-onset forgetfulness of David Addington and Alberto Gonzales, which has made these hearings an exercise in misery for the past two years.

Nadler reads out the list of so-called "Category II" techniques approved in 2002 by Rumsfeld for use in military interrogations. This was a dramatic departure from the interrogation policy that preceded it. Category II includes stress positions, humiliation, hooding, forced nakedness, hours of forced standing, and terrorizing with dogs. Nadler is curious whether any of these qualify under Feith's definition of the "humane" treatment on which he insisted.

"I imagine you can apply them in a humane fashion," replies Feith. "Removal of clothing," he quotes from the laundry list, "doesn't mean naked." Interrogators are free to remove prisoners' top hats and monocles, but they may go no further. What about subjecting prisoners to "stress positions," such as hours of forced standing? Feith notes that in police stations, American citizens are subject to "stress" every day. When an astonished Nadler asks how a prisoner who has been hooded and terrorized by dogs can possibly be said to have been treated "humanely," Steve King is obligated to insist that the chairman has exceeded his time limit. Feith testifies that "if multiple techniques were used, they needed to be used in a carefully coordinated manner." Sure, there has been "terrible, reprehensible," and "disgusting and horrible" conduct for which the perpetrators should be punished. But that was in blatant violation of the law.

You're probably wondering how the Bush administration was going to ensure that the interrogators on the ground who would suddenly be permitted to engage in the hooding, sexual humiliation, and stripping of prisoners would be trained to do so in a "humane" manner. I know I am. Is there a field guide someplace with chapters on "Terrorizing With Dogs ... in a Nice Way" and "I'm Naked/You're Naked … Sexual Humiliation With Sensitivity"? Apparently no such manual exists. I guess interrogators were given the new techniques and cautioned to implement them with dignity.

In a colloquy with another witness—Deborah Pearlstein, formerly of Human Rights First and now at Princeton—Bobby Scott, D-Va., asks why in the 330 documented cases in which the U.S. military abused detainees (including more than 100 deaths) the torturers did what they did. She describes the court martial proceeding of a young interrogator who killed a detainee by "stuffing him in a sleeping bag, wrapping him up in a rope, and suffocating him." The young man claimed to have had no training beyond a "memo by Gen. Sanchez"—the U.S. commander in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He thought these techniques were OK. But in Feith's view of the world, if interrogators were too stupid to figure out how to humiliate and coerce humanely, they and they alone should be on the hook for it.

Today saw the release of footage of the interrogation of Omar Khadr (see the video below)—a Canadian who's been in U.S. custody for six years. He was 15 when he was picked up and 16 at the time he was being questioned. He's been subjected to sleep deprivation and lengthy periods of isolation. In the video, Khadr begs for medical attention and cries for his mother. Maybe he, too, is the "worst of the worst," as Committee Republicans insist is true of everyone we have abused. Or maybe Doug Feith's top-secret system for interrogating our enemies with dignity is too clever by half.