Name, Rank and Serial Number


By Joe Campbell
April 30th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask.

Porter Goss, former director of the CIA, in the Washington Post.

Right-wingers from the National Review to Rush Limbaugh to Porter Goss has repeated this line ad infinitum – this constant suggestion or occasionally accusation that opponents of torture only want to ask members of al Qaeda for their “name, rank and serial number.” This is a distortion of the position many opponents of torture take – that the Geneva Conventions do apply even to terrorists. A commenter called salubrius provides a decent breakdown:

There are two standards for interrogation in the Geneva Convention. One standard applies to POWs or prisoners of war. These prisoners have a preferred status in that they may not be coerced to provide information other than their name, rank and serial number. The other standard applies to those who do not qualify as POWs. These are also referred to as unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court in 1942 referred to this classification of lawful and unlawful combatants. 

Terrorists and suspected terrorists are still protected under the Geneva Conventions – though not to the extent of prisoners of war or civilians. Geneva provides certain mininimal protections for “those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Namely, Geneva provides that such persons “shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” and “shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention.” This is the position held by most if not all of those who insist that Geneva still applies to terrorists.

Proponents of torture try to mislead those not following the political conversation closely by disingenously claiming that their opponents consider asking anything more than “name, rank, and serial number” to be torture. In fact, the most successful interrogators of terrorists so far have also been opponents of torture – from Ali Soufan of the FBI to Matthew Alexander of military intelligence.

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