September 18, 2006 12:01 AM EDT

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Until now, the issue of what our interrogators did to the al-Qaeda operatives in their custody was as remote as the secret prisons in which they have been kept: a list of techniques with odd names like “water boarding” to match up with grainy head shots above long Arabic names. But we learned from President Bush last week that the CIA’s 14 high-value detainees have been moved to a U.S. base, the Cuban outpost of Guantánamo Bay. And because they will face some kind of trial, the issue of torture moves closer to our political shore. When you look at their faces and learn more about them–which you will in the coming months–it will be for you to decide how you really feel about their treatment. Was it justified? Is it ever? Do you care? There will be official proceedings of some kind, and you might even hear their voices and be able to imagine how, in custody, they screamed in pain, whimpered or choked. But then think of 9/11, of the awful carnage and a nation’s broken heart, and as you slide down the slippery slope, their screams may start to sound like justice.

In democracies, we work hard to push the idea of justice–that roiling, unwieldy principle–through the architecture of courtrooms, where it can be shaped by rules of discovery, hearsay, visible accusers and cross-examination that have been built, through trials and lots of errors, over centuries. The adversarial process in the U.S. and other Western countries tends to be messy and unpredictable, combative and often emotional, which is why it is so effective at producing judgments that last. Let it all out–hold back nothing!–so there are no “what ifs” on judgment day. You had your day in court; now accept the verdict and relegate revenge to fantasies.

That would have worked, even in this case of such overpowering emotions, had those on our side fighting the so-called war on terrorism not made certain tactical decisions early on. As the dusty rabble of Afghan fighters moved to the newly opened Guantánamo in early 2002 and the first al-Qaeda operative–the pint-size Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi–was picked up, debate raged inside the Administration as to what would produce the highest-quality “yield” from interrogation with the greatest speed. There was fear of a second-wave attack, after all, and U.S. intelligence was panicked. On one side was the FBI, which touted its 1990s experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives–interrogation that led to numerous prosecutions for the first World Trade Center attack and other bombings. Yes, it took a while to break, or co-opt, informants, but the wait was worth it, and everything was admissible in court. The thing the FBI learned: al-Qaeda members assumed their jailers would dismember them. When instead the interrogators presented a tough but very human face, the detainees were confused. Small amenities–an FBI agent’s knowledge of the Koran, unlimited videos and even an operation for an al-Qaeda member’s child–were the kinds of things that eventually turned them. Patience was rewarded. On the other side was the CIA, bursting with urgency and a taste for “whatever’s necessary” improvisation–a view encouraged by White House lawyers and a series of anything-goes legal opinions. Bush, heavily directed by Vice President Dick Cheney, went with the CIA. Top-level captives would go to the agency. No one thought much about the summation of the FBI’s pitch–successful prosecution in U.S. courts. That was for later, or never.

The wheel came round last week in a strange mix of announcements. In the East Room, Bush unveiled his story line: essentially, I have brought these captives out of the darkness of CIA “black site” prisons to get things started legally; you, the Congress, must approve my proposal for a very narrowly proscribed military tribunal to dispose of them. He added that the harsh interrogation methods were not illegal, were often productive and were something he had reserved the right to order again, ostensibly through the CIA. Meanwhile, across the Potomac, a Pentagon panel met the press to disclose the 16 “old school” ways that would be acceptable methods of interrogation for detainees coming into their custody, conspicuously excluding the harsh, morally challenging techniques already used on the dirty dozen plus two.

What the President wouldn’t say, especially in a political season, is that he and the rest of the government have learned quite a bit from their early errors. What is widely known inside the Administration is that once we caught our first decent-size fish–Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002–we used him as an experiment in righteous brutality that in the end produced very little. His interrogation, according to those overseeing it, yielded little from threats and torture. He named countless targets inside the U.S. to stop the pain, all of them immaterial. Indeed, think back to the sudden slew of alerts in the spring and summer of 2002 about attacks on apartment buildings, banks, shopping malls and, of course, nuclear plants. What little of value he did tell us came largely from a more sophisticated approach, using his religious belief in predestination to convince him he miraculously survived his arrest (he was shot three times and nursed to health by U.S. doctors) for a reason: to help the other side. It’s that strange conviction that generated the few, modest disclosures of use to the U.S. Complicating matters is that Zubaydah was more a facilitator–a glorified al-Qaeda travel agent–than the operational master the Administration trumpeted him as. Also, he suffers from multiple personalities. His diary, which the government refuses to release, is written in three voices over 10 years and is filled with page after page of quotidian nonsense about housekeeping, food and types of tea.

The lessons from Zubaydah and his more noteworthy successors–like Ramzi Binalshibh, an erudite killer who provided little information under extreme duress, and the 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (K.S.M.), who, according to senior intelligence officials, was told his children would be hurt if he didn’t cooperate–were the long-held lessons of going medieval: whatever jumbled information is swiftly gathered is not worth the high price. To establish what was gathered, Bush, in the East Room, did what has consistently landed him in trouble–take creative liberties with classified information. Specifically, he ran through a simplified progression of how each successful interrogation led to the next capture, another interrogation, another capture and so forth. He put special emphasis on Zubaydah–the insane travel agent–saying that, under duress, he gave interrogators information that identified Binalshibh and “helped lead” to the capture of both Binalshibh and the prized K.S.M. This is the sort of thing that has steadily eroded Bush’s relationship with the intelligence community: presidential sins of omission, or emphasis, that would be clear only if you happened to know lots of classified information. In fact, according to senior intelligence officials past and present, Zubaydah helpfully confirmed that “Mukhtar” was K.S.M.’s code name–something key intelligence officials already suspected–and had nothing to do with identifying Binalshibh, who had come to the attention of investigators a few weeks after 9/11 because he had sent wire transfers to Zacarias Moussaoui.

While bits and pieces about Binalshibh and K.S.M. arrived from many sources, the key to capturing the former was information passed to the CIA by the Emir of Qatar–information taken from the files of an al-Jazeera reporter (the Emir owns the network) who secretly visited both terrorists in the Karachi apartment where Binalshibh was subsequently captured in September 2002. As for K.S.M., the key was a cooperative source who met with K.S.M., summarily called the CIA, guided agents to the terrorist’s safe house, then collected his $25 million reward and is now safely relocated, with his extended family, somewhere in the U.S.

To be fair, the abusive interrogations of the 14 did lead to some actionable intelligence, but Bush’s list fails to take into account the unnecessary costs of resorting to abuse–specifically, the lost opportunity to uncover more secrets by developing a rich captor-captive relationship, the loss of a democracy’s moral authority and the poisoning of any eventual legal proceeding, which, of course, would disallow evidence gained through torture.

Five years after 9/11, Americans are understandably eager to finally get an unfiltered–read nonpoliticized–look at our “high value” captives, the transnational actors, so-called, at the center of global drama. An authentic legal process would give them that–which is why the Administration is dead set against it. The problem is not really with classified information. Most of what these captives told us is already common knowledge or dated; the U.S. hasn’t caught any truly significant players in two years. However, discovery in such a case would show that the President and Vice President were involved in overseeing their interrogations, according to senior intelligence officials. Subpoenas on how evidence was obtained and who authorized what practices would go right into the West Wing.

By week’s end, Republican Senators were challenging the President’s narrow tribunal plan, pushing for something that looks and feels more like a genuine legal process. As to a court date for that “judicial process,” which officially started last week? Unless the White House decides there’s political capital to harvest and wants to move fast, think January … 2009. Next Administration.

Suskind is the author of the best-selling book The One Percent Doctrine, first excerpted in TIME, about the war on terrorism

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