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Safe at Home

‘A small effort which paid big dividends’ in the war on terror.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Courting Disaster

Safe at Home

How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama
 Is Inviting the Next Attack
by Marc A. Thiessen
Regnery, 376 pp., $29.95

Marc Thiessen is not a lawyer, nor does he play one on TV. 

However, should he ever decide to put aside his current professional life as a foreign policy hand and speechwriter, he should think about giving a career in the law a look. Based on the fact that Courting Disaster, his defense of the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program, is the most detailed and comprehensive brief for that program put forward to date. And in making that brief, he also makes a compelling case that the Washington Post, New York Times, Christiane Amanpour, Andrew Sullivan, Jane Mayer, and sundry others have engaged in journalistic malpractice by the selective reporting of facts, or ignoring of facts altogether, when it came to the CIA program. Many wanted to believe the worst about the CIA, the Bush White House, and the “war on terror,” and wrote and editorialized accordingly.

As detailed here, the CIA program of secret detentions and “enhanced interrogation techniques”—which included sleep deprivation, cold cells, head and belly slaps, prolonged standing, “walling,” and water boarding—was a relatively small effort which paid big dividends. Out of the thousands detained by the United States and allies in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and from around the world, some 100 were handed over to the agency, where approximately one-third were subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques, but only three were subjected to the most extreme of those methods, waterboarding. 

Yet, it was those interrogations, according to Thiessen, that resulted in the government’s going from being virtually blind when it came to al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks to obtaining lead after lead about follow-on plots, previously unknown networks, and the operational ins and outs of al Qaeda itself. Some half of what we came to know about Osama bin Laden and his allies came directly from those grillings, with the result that Courting Disaster can plausibly point to the fact that, before the interrogation program was established, the United States had suffered four major al Qaeda attacks—the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of American embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and 9/11—while after .  .  . none. 

On the program’s effectiveness, it was then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet who famously said that it “is worth more than [what] the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.” Nor was Tenet alone in this view. As Thiessen points out, virtually everyone who has examined the program has supported that opinion. Indeed, even Dennis Blair, the Obama administration’s choice to head up the U. S. intelligence community, testified to the fact that “high value information came from interrogations in which [enhanced interrogation] methods were used.” 

Blair followed up this point with the comment that “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.” But is that the case? As Thiessen observes, we do know that attempts to interrogate terrorists using FBI techniques both before and after the 9/11 attacks produced nowhere near the same level of information. In fact, in two cases documented in the book—one involving the interrogation of a key al Qaeda logistician, and the second, the would-be 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attack—the FBI’s interrogators were at best getting dribs and drabs, and more significant intelligence was obtained only after enhanced interrogation techniques were used. This, of course, does not disprove Blair’s point conclusively, but it does indicate that getting that information in an operationally timely manner through the FBI’s methods, and under the strictures of the Army Field Manual (as currently mandated by the administration), is not something one might want to count on. 

Thiessen’s argument, however, does not rest on the program’s effectiveness alone. He also wants to show that, contrary to Bush administration critics, the underlying premise of the CIA interrogation effort was not that “anything goes” or that “might makes right.” To the contrary, Courting Disaster gives considerable space to addressing the program’s legality and its morality. As he and others have pointed out, one cannot objectively read the Justice Department memos detailing what the CIA interrogators could and could not do to the high-value terrorist detainees (such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and not come away impressed with just how carefully limited the use of the harsher techniques, such as waterboarding, was. Certainly no one would want those methods to be used on oneself; but then again, as Thiessen points out, none of the terrorists who underwent enhanced interrogation have suffered the kind of permanent physical or mental damage we normally associate with torture.


 

To draw some moral equivalence between what CIA interrogators did, and the behavior of Japanese camp guards and the Khmer Rouge, as some commentators and some in Congress have argued, is to lose all sense of proportion. Not only were the methods radically different, so were the ends for which they were employed.

Nevertheless, there are those who would ban the use of any harsher interrogation methods no matter what the cost in public security. All one can really say to them is that they should remain as far away from government as possible, where at times moral and legal judgments are not clear-cut, but one has to take responsibility for the safety of one’s fellow citizens.

The more nuanced criticism is that it is better, as a matter of law and public morality, to stay well clear of anything that smacks of torture in the normal course of events but to acknowledge that, in dire circumstances, one may ignore the law and do what is necessary—the so-called “ticking bomb” scenario. 

Although there is a case to be made for this approach in theory, in practice it has two major drawbacks. First, as the CIA discovered with the planned follow-on attacks against the United States by al Qaeda, we might not learn about a “ticking bomb” until an enhanced interrogation has actually taken place. Second, it will not be a president doing the rough stuff, but it will fall on the shoulders of intelligence or military personnel to carry out his order. Good luck convincing them that it’s okay to break the law when they risk losing their careers, savings (as they hire lawyers), and liberty, with their only defense being “I was told to break the law.” Nor is the “ticking bomb” argument without its problem as a theory, for it implies that the law, including the Constitution, is not sufficient to protect the country—a dubious lesson for citizens and leaders alike.

There is a take-no-prisoners quality to Courting Disaster. Thiessen seems happy to do battle with anyone and everyone who has a negative take on the CIA program. But given the moral preening Barack Obama and his allies have engaged in when it came to the CIA program, Bush administration policies, and Guantánamo, the walloping Thiessen hands out is mostly deserved. 

The truth is, Americans are not nearly as fastidious as Obama assumed they were when he released the interrogation memos last April. Polls consistently show that only one-quarter of the nation reject out of hand enhanced interrogation methods for the highest-value detainees. The majority see a need to use more coercive interrogation methods in certain select instances. This is not a case of Americans being morally obtuse, but quite the opposite: We understand perfectly well both the threat we face and the fact that men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are not likely to break if faced only with the interrogation techniques allowed under the Army Field Manual. They undertand that innocent lives are at stake in whether the Obama administration is effectively addressing this and similar issues in the war against al Qaeda.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and editor of and contributor to the forthcoming Safety and Liberty: Democratic Approaches to Domestic Security (AEI).


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