Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The torture issue, then and now

I was going to write something about the ongoing torture debate until I found out that Jeff Jacoby already wrote it. First of all, I agree with Jacoby and Jim Manzi that torture is un-American:

At a time when not only conservative hawks but even some notable liberals were making the case for using torture to thwart Al Qaeda, I contended that the cruel abuse of terrorist detainees was something we could never countenance - not just because torture is illegal, unreliable, and a threat to the innocent, but because it is one of those practices that a civilized society cannot engage in without undermining its right to call itself civilized.
But there's also no denying that the consensus on torture has shifted eight years after 9/11. It's this shift in opinion that puts the CIA into a sinusoidal wave of response from extra-legal action to tentative inaction. Push too hard and it's torture; not hard enough, and who knows?

Senior terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at first "resisted giving any answers" when asked about future attacks, but waterboarding led him to divulge "specific, actionable intelligence." One result was the foiling of Al Qaeda's planned "Second Wave" - a 9/11-like plot to crash a hijacked airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper.

But what if it hadn't been foiled? Suppose the CIA had been denied permission to use brutal interrogation tactics, and Al Qaeda had consequently gone on to murder thousands of additional victims in California. What kind of conversation would we be having once it became known that the refusal to subject KSM to waterboarding had come at so steep a price? How many of those now blasting the Bush administration for allowing torture would be blasting it instead for not preventing a second bloodbath?

None of this is meant as a defense of torture, which I oppose as adamantly as ever. But even those of us who were against the Bush interrogation policy should be able to acknowledge the good faith of those who disagreed and the exigency in which they found themselves. To say nothing of the lives their decisions may have saved.
To be sure, in the wake of 9/11, Congressional leaders were asking if the CIA techniques were tough enough:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Seven years later, the two Democrats who were present at the briefings now claim they don't know nothing about no torture:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who in 2002 was the ranking Democrat on the House committee, has said in public statements that she recalls being briefed on the methods, including waterboarding. She insists, however, that the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal — not that they were going to be used.

By contrast, the ranking Republican on the House committee at the time, Porter J. Goss of Florida, who later served as C.I.A. director, recalls a clear message that the methods would be used.

"We were briefed, and we certainly understood what C.I.A. was doing," Mr. Goss said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, who was committee chairman in 2002, said in an interview that he did not recall ever being briefed on the methods, though government officials with access to records say all four committee leaders received multiple briefings.
It would seem perfectly defendable to state that America has shifted from Jack Bauer mode since 2001 and an honest discussion would start with both the techniques and the results of torture. Regrettably, the Obama administration redacted positive views by Admiral Dennis Blair in the initial release of CIA documents, opening themselves up to the familiar charge of playing politics with intelligence. Here's the National Intelligence Director again:

"I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past, but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given."
I'm confident that, despite Obama's recent red meat to the blogging Left, there will be no prosecution of anybody from the Bush administration for actions taken during an overheated moment in time. If so, the first witness for the defense will be Dennis Blair and the second will be Nancy Pelosi.


Anonymous said...

Politicizing torture? Here's a troubling article by Jonathan Landay. Landay was one of the only reporters on top of the WMD story before it was acknowledged as a story:

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.
Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.
...A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.
"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."
...A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.
"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."
Excerpts from Burney's interview appeared in a full, declassified report on a two-year investigation into detainee abuse released on Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Vermont Woodchuck said...

Thank you Mr. Anonymous for giving us a list of persons with such peccable creds. Including yourself whom I must presume is/was an intimate eyewitness to all this history.

Anonymous said...

What a devastating comeback, to see "Vermont Woodchuck" impugn Jonathan Landay's and the Senate Armed Service Committee's professional credibility. They won't sleep well tonight!

Bindle said...

Senior terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at first "resisted giving any answers" when asked about future attacks, but waterboarding led him to divulge "specific, actionable intelligence." One result was the foiling of Al Qaeda's planned "Second Wave" - a 9/11-like plot to crash a hijacked airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper.Forget "torture" vs. "not torture." There's a simpler definition for the above scenario. It's called a lie.