President Obama is today scheduled to deliver his last major speech about national security, which will summarize and defend his counterterrorism legal policy and strategy over the past eight years. Ahead of that, the administration released a pile of documents yesterday. These included a 61-page report that described the legal framework for its counterterrorism policies, and basically synthesized a bunch of previous speeches and documents; a War Powers Resolution letter to Congress that publicly acknowledges what we first reported late last month — that the US has expanded the legal scope of the 9/11 war to encompass Al Shabab in Somalia; a 2012 report to Congress describing detention policy; and — drumroll, please — the 2009 report by Obama’s executive order task force on rendition and interrogation policy, led by J. Douglas Wilson.
I want to draw special attention to the task force report, which is one of the documents whose disclosure I had been seeking in one of my current Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the government.
I had gained access to a copy of this then still-secret report during my research for Power Wars, and described it in some detail in Chapter Four, Section 14 (“The Interrogation and Rendition Task Force”). I zeroed in on a few things about it.
One was the fact, not mentioned in a press release issued in August 2009 announcing that the report had been completed, that Wilson, in recommending that the government stick with only permitting the CIA to use Army Field Manual techniques, had asked it whether the agency wanted to use anything else and the agency had not come up with anything.
Another was the fact, obscured in the press release, that the task force had weighed whether to bar the C.I.A. from transferring detainees to certain countries where they might be abused before deciding to stick with the status quo policy of permitting such transfers on a case-by-case basis subject to assurances of humane treatment.
And a third was its treatment of the famous Appendix M to the Army Field Manual, which permits separating a detainee from other prisoners, in light of criticism that it might be intended to permit a form of torture (sensory/sleep deprivation). I wrote:
In my many discussions with Obama-era officials, I have found no sign of any cynical conspiracy to leave the door open to torture when limiting interrogators to techniques in the field manual. But, of course, people might have been misleading me or ignorant of what was happening on the ground. In that light, it is interesting to see how Wilson’s task force report, with the candor of not having been written for public consumption, handled the issue. It says only “Experienced interrogators believe that separation of a high-value detainee from other detainees is often essential to effective interrogation and that the U.S. government should maintain a detention capability that allows control of the detention environment to support intelligence collection.”
The fact that Wilson’s report did not spot appendix M as a potential loophole for inhumane interrogations suggests that there was no policymaker-level intention to use it that way, though it is not definitive proof. As of this writing, there is no public evidence that the government has ever invoked the minimum-sleep rule in appendix M during the Obama era. The available information remains incomplete.
So now that part of the Freedom of Information Act case is moot and readers can judge for themselves whether my account of the report hit the mark. Here it is: