THE PLANK APRIL 24, 2009
Several recent op-eds advocate aligning U.S. interrogation policy with those of Israel and the United Kingdom. Both countries have unequivocally outlawed the torture of detainees, despite their long experience combating terrorism. Exactly how does each country deal with the issue?
Israel has not had an easy time of it. Following two public scandals that raised questions about the accountability of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, the Israeli government established an independent commission to set clear guidelines about coercive interrogation. After some deliberation, in 1987, the commission authorized the use of psychological coercion and "moderate physical pressure" in "ticking time bomb" scenarios. Not long afterwards, these practices became widespread--everything, they assumed, was equivalent to a "ticking time bomb"--although Shin Bet's former head interrogator Michael Koubi says he always checked with the courts before personally employing the most violent of these methods.
A decade later human rights groups and Palestinian detainees petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, which delivered a 1999 ruling that is similar to the approach Andrew Sullivan would later advocate in the pages of TNR. The Court banned all "violence directed at a suspect's body or spirit," making any interrogator who employs such techniques answerable to the law. If charged, however, the interrogator may invoke "the defense of necessity," which forces the court to examine whether the interrogator's actions could be considered "necessary" in that individual case.
In practice, however, this has not prevented widespread use of the prohibited "torture lite" interrogation techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation, violent shaking, and hooding. While they are technically illegal, human rights groups contend that they have been in routine use since the Second Intifada, and the Israeli government rarely, if ever, decides to prosecute interrogators.
Britain's policies on torture are, ostensibly, far more restrictive. This is due in large part to the fact that British policies are subject to rulings by the European Court Of Human Rights, which overturned the use of hooding, noise, sleep deprivation, and food deprivation against IRA members in the 1978 ruling Ireland v. United Kingdom; and banned Britain from practicing renditions in a separate case.
Despite this, we do not know if Britain uses coercive interrogation techniques in secret. However, we do know that the British government recently tried to skirt the second prohibition by cooperating with the U.S. extraordinary rendition program, but denying knowledge that any of it involved torture. As information about that policy has trickled out, it's provoked much criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups, and David Cameron's Tory party. In response, Gordon Brown has promised to release the interrogation guidelines used by British intelligence for the first time.