Election to Decide Future Interrogation Methods in Terrorism Cases

By CHARLIE SAVAGE

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has said much about torture as part of terrorism investigations during the 2012 general campaign. But the future of American government practices when interrogating high-level terrorism suspects appears likely to turn on the outcome of the election.

In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of nonabusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues — like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act — Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy.

By contrast, Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” and permit secret “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,” according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

While the memo is a policy proposal drafted by Mr. Romney’s advisers in September 2011, and not a final decision by him, its detailed analysis dovetails with his rare and limited public comments about interrogation.

“We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., in December.

The campaign policy paper does not specify which techniques Mr. Romney should approve, saying more study was needed because Mr. Obama had “permanently damaged” the value of some by releasing memorandums detailing Bush-era techniques in April 2009.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush administration lawyers approved as legal, despite antitorture laws, such tactics as prolonged sleep deprivation, shackling into painful “stress” positions for long periods while naked and in a cold room, slamming into a wall, locking inside a small box, and the suffocation tactic called waterboarding. The goal was to break the will to resist of detainees believed to be withholding information.

When disclosed, the Bush policies ignited a heated debate that continues to flare. The policy’s supporters say they were lawful and extracted valuable information that helped save lives. Critics contend that they were illegal and damaged the United States’ moral standing, and that the same or better information could have been obtained with nonabusive tactics.

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