Advancing a Free Society

The Chambliss interrogation bill

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This is the final installment in my series of posts on the post-Executive Order spree of legislation emerging from Capitol Hill. It concerns the interrogation bill introduced by Sen. Saxby Chambliss as part of the Senate package of bills–the other elements of which I discussed here and here.

I have now read this bill several times, and I have to confess that I don’t understand it. I don’t understand quite what it is trying to do, nor do I fully understand how substantially–if at all–it would really mandate changes in current practices. It is clearly intended to precipitate a dramatic change, the creation of a new interrogation unit that would take the lead in all major counterterrorism interrogations. And in conjunction with some of the other bills introduced in the wake of the Executive Order, it might thus have a considerable impact. But for the reasons I will describe, I’m not sure its impact would be as dramatic as its sponsors intend. That’s probably a good thing–since the underlying policy judgment is not, in my opinion, sound.

I’m going to describe the bill first and give some impressions of how it would interact with and change current practice. I’m not 100 percent certain that I’m right in these impressions and would welcome clarification or correction. Needless to say, it is a corrolary of my confusion as to the likely function of this bill that I believe it would require a lot of work before it would be ready for prime time.

The bill–introduced on behalf of Sens. Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Richard Burr–is fashioned as an amendment to the Detainee Treatment Act. It requires the development and submission to Congress of new “procedures for the interrogation of unprivileged enemy belligerents who are suspected of possessing significant information” and who are either in U.S. custody or in foreign custody with American access. It lays out certain elements which those procedures “shall” contain, though it generally does so with sufficient vagueness as to make its effects in practice a little opaque.

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