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'Hands off' is not an option

Bystander guilt. That is what FBI and Justice Department officials have on their conscience and what John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, and FBI director Robert Mueller should be haunted by every day.

The long-awaited report from the Justice Department inspector general on abusive detainee interrogations says that the FBI should be credited for its "professionalism" due to the way FBI agents separated themselves from the harsh methods meted out by military and CIA questioners.

They did do that. But that was not enough.

FBI agents started complaining to their higher-ups as early as 2002 that abuse was occurring at the hands of CIA and military interrogators; yet our chief law enforcement agency failed to act in any way beyond absenting itself from the dirty business. Those officials failed in their jobs to uphold American law and values.

I remember a case that horrified and transfixed America about 11 years ago. A young girl was sexually assaulted and murdered in a Nevada casino bathroom by a man whose friend saw the girl struggling and left the scene. There was a great public outcry that the friend should be prosecuted as well because he had failed to intervene or go for help.

This bystander may not have been legally culpable but from a moral vantage he had blood on his hands.

The same holds true for a law enforcement agent who ignores a prisoner being abused, except that it is that agent's duty to intervene — turning one's face away or absenting one's self is not an option for an FBI agent. That's the message that should have been sent from on high to agents in the field.

The IG's report said that the inception of the FBI's head-in-the-sand approach was in 2002 with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida operative. Two FBI agents had been questioning the gravely injured Zubaydah using the rapport-building techniques that have been proven to work in obtaining actionable intelligence. Then the CIA took over, with a different approach— one that is ugly and un-American and violates U.S. and international laws. Concerns over the CIA's actions led to Mueller determining in August 2002 that the FBI would not be part of joint interrogations where harsh or extreme techniques were employed.

Still, complaints from FBI agents who observed abuse kept coming. Hundreds witnessed it, according to the report. Agents opened a "war crimes file" at Guantanamo to document the rough methods, but an FBI official had it closed because detainee abuse was not the FBI's problem.

FBI headquarters informally let it be known that it was okay to witness these "non-FBI authorized interrogations so long as they did not participate," the IG's report said.

Be a bystander, let it happen, ignore the law. How could that be our policy?

Agents kept up their complaints about what was happening to prisoners at Guantanamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking for better guidance and receiving none. The report confirms that top officials in the Justice Department, including Ashcroft, knew what agents on the ground were saying.

And still it was: hands-off, heads-down.

Then in January 2004, months before the explosive Abu Ghraib pictures became public, senior managers at the FBI learned of the prisoner mistreatment there. The agency again decided to do nothing.

It wasn't until the pictures hit the news and the FBI realized it had to address the PR problem that an official policy was issued on what to do if prisoner abuse is observed. Report it to the "on-scene commander" who will report it to FBI headquarters, the May 2004 policy said.

But then, agents started hearing that "abuse" means only those techniques used beyond those authorized for the person doing the interrogation. Don't bother reporting "routine" harsh treatment, they're told.

Everyone important in the FBI and Justice Department knew and no one stopped it or made a ruckus. That makes them professionals all right, professional bystanders, with a burdened conscience.

'Hands off' is not an option 05/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:45pm]

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