The Magazine

What Was the CIA Up To?

There's one way to find out: Obama should release the intelligence gained from the interrogations.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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This is a delicate business involving some unpleasantness; it must be entrusted to the hands and tongues and pens of men who are completely above suspicion and without self-interest, for the weal or woe of the country depends on them." So wrote Nizam al-Mulk, the great 11th-century Persian vizier about the importance of good intelligence and good intelligence officers. Unfortunately for this cultured, Machiavellian minister, the intelligence wasn't good enough: In 1092 a Shiite holy warrior--a member of the dreaded Assassins--got through his security and knifed the old man to death.

The controversy surrounding the Central Intelligence Agency's use of aggressive interrogation and black sites is probably in its early stages, unfortunately. Unless the American left decides to calm down, we are all in for a tortuous, emotionally wrenching national discussion of the "unpleasantness" involved in counterterrorism. We never really did have a post-9/11 debate about the morality of counterterrorist operations, since both Republicans and Democrats wanted to be unpleasant and preferred not to talk about it. President Bush really should have forced a public discussion--or at least a closed hearing of the congressional intelligence committees--about what the CIA could and could not do in its efforts to gather information about possible catastrophic attacks against the United States and its allies.

If President Bush had done so, we likely would have had a bipartisan consensus in favor of black sites and aggressive interrogation. This consensus still might have changed--and it should change if America's elected representatives determine the threat does not merit harsh counterterrorist methods, or that the interrogation methods used are ineffective. But at least we would likely now be less partisan and more careful about casting stones. Liberal pundits and publications, who have made surreal slippery-slope parallels juxtaposing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) with Jacobo Timerman and Soviet dissidents, and the Bush administration with the Argentine junta and the KGB, might have drawn more complicated pictures of the collision of good and evil after 9/11. Now on both the Democratic and Republican sides, we have, as with the Iraq war, more often forgetfulness and hypocrisy. President Bush's and Vice President Cheney's mania for secrecy and executive prerogative did neither them nor the country any favors.

Although President Obama may parade his virtuousness too prominently, he is undoubtedly right that part of the superpower strength of the United States is in our national character. Statecraft that damages the country's soul weakens the heart and will of its citizenry--especially when it comes to the unavoidably ugly task of waging war against America's enemies. It really isn't that important whether the Germans or Egyptians think well of us--the former will not fight in Afghanistan regardless of Barack Obama's efforts to restore our "honor," and the latter's police-state security service, with whom the administration has a fairly close intelligence-liaison relationship, could not care less who we waterboarded however many times. But it does matter a lot whether America's liberal foreign-policy establishment is willing to combat Islamic radicalism aggressively. A guilt-ridden America isn't a particularly daunting foe.

There is something fundamentally impressive--even at this late date--in Americans' having a big, brawling debate about how we should combat Islamic terrorism. Although the Supreme Court is on the verge of giving the protection of the Geneva Conventions to KSM and his kind, it's still not too late for the war-making branches of government and the citizenry to debate whether the Geneva Conventions are appropriate for combating mass-casualty terrorism. But like President Bush, President Obama isn't interested in debates about this issue. The president and senior congressional Democrats simply assert that we are safer because we no longer put senior members of al Qaeda through the wringer. A "false choice between our security and our ideals" isn't necessary. Okay. But wouldn't it be better if before making such a flat statement that the president and his team, let alone a more objective blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, had assessed the 6,000 intelligence reports produced from the interrogation of CIA detainees? Isn't it just possible that these individuals were more truthful and more talkative because they received Langley's special attention?