Four years ago former Bush speech writer, Marc A. Thiessen, in his book Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe, provided a thundering response to critics of the CIA’s interrogation practices post 9-11. In the wake of the attack on CIA practices, the writer laid out a clear, lucid case for the intelligence agency in its efforts to glean information about impending attacks from prisoners that the United States had abducted in its wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his book he details how the CIA, after first obtaining legal authority and political backing for its interrogation techniques, undertook the effort to force information from its prisoners with great caution and having successfully done so, uncovered some vital leads on future plots that al Qaeda never had the chance to execute.
But for at least eight years, these same CIA practices have come under remorseless assault by the Obama Administration and from Democrats in Congress. That campaign came to a head this week when the Obama Administration released the Senate’s Investigation into CIA Interrogation Practices, a report, five years in the making and which had been finalized in 2013. In that report the Democratic majority( with no Republican in the bi-partisan committee signing on to it) , found that the harsh CIA interrogation techniques had been unwarranted; that they had not resulted in any leads which contributed to national security and that the CIA had operated as a rogue institution beyond the bounds of the law.
Some stories just never die.
So to revisit this argument, which has been made convincingly over the past several years (and was amplified again on December 10th in the Wall Street Journal by three former CIA directors who served under both Bush and Obama in ) let us state the case again:
1. The CIA enhanced interrogation techniques, including water boarding ( which the Report defines as torture) were given the legal sanction by the Justice Department, the memo of which can be found HERE and whose legal reasoning has never been successfully contested. In 2009 Eric Holder’s Justice Department assigned the experienced prosecutor John Durham to investigate whether any unauthorized techniques were used by CIA interrogators and if so whether any such techniques violated U.S. criminal statutes. No prosecutable offenses were found.
2. The interrogation had bi-partisan backing in Congress the members of whom were kept well informed with extensive briefings over the course of five years during the Bush Administration’s tenure in office.
3. The harsh techniques employed by the CIA in Guantanamo and in other so called “black sites” do not fall into within the definition of” torture”or inhuman treatment. According to Victoria Toesing, the former Chief Counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, under U.S. law ‘torture’ “means the infliction of severe mental pain or suffering ‘that requires and that the perpetrator to specifically intended to impose such suffering. ” The fact is that none of the techniques used by the CIA in 2002-6 amounted to torture because none of the interrogators either intended to inflict severe pain and suffering and because they did not in fact inflict such pain and suffering.
4. The information obtained from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed alone (or KSM as he is now more affectionately known in the Intelligence community) was invaluable in interdicting future attacks and obtaining a sense of the hierarchy and operational functioning of the terrorist organization which had struck the United States repeatedly over the previous eight years. It resulted, for instance, in foiling what became known as the Hambali Plot, a 17 member South East Asian cell recruited for a ‘ second wave’ attack against the U.S. West Coast which would have replicated the devastating 9/11 al Qaeda operation.
The report is released at a convenient time, when the Democratic Party is at a low ebb following a trouncing in the mid-term elections and an increasingly unpopular Democratic president. It is become de rigeur for this Administration to assign its own failures to the mess it inherited from its predecessor and so it comes as little surprise that the Administration would seek to deflect attention from itself and highlight the others’ failures. Indeed, glowing righteousness, in contrast to George Bush’s fecklessnness has been a trademark of this President and the Democratic Party he leads.
This is all of a piece with the nonsensical statement made by the President on April 16, 2009 , soon after taking office that ” a democracy as resilient as ours, must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals.”
He is wrong. National security – the life, welfare and safety of the individual citizens of the United States must always trump abstract ideals and some times they are in irreconcilable conflict. Yes, war is bad and no democracy willingly and enthusiastically undertakes it – but sometimes it must; very few American citizens have a penchant or desire to kill other human beings – but sometimes, in order to protect themselves and their families, they must. Very few of our Intelligence personnel wish to use harsh methods to force our enemies to divulge plans being hatched against American citizens – but sometimes they must. When the American homeland is in imminent danger, when American lives are at risk – as we most certainly were in the years following 9-11 – those committed to our safety would be derelict in their duty unless they undertook every necessary measures to protect us. Ideals are nice but when your life is threatened, you do what you need to do to protect yourself. Hindsight is not available when you are dead.
No one has an exclusive claim to moral authority. Not even the Democratic Senate majority nor Barack Obama. For lets not forget the moral equivalence that Obama Administration employs when it talks about Bush era security practices. Its drone policy, sometimes targeting American citizens themselves who have gone over to the other side, are activities undertaken to kill terrorists – not detain them, nor interrogate them. They are eliminated peremptorily – not after having been captured , indicted, tried and sentenced. Sometimes, lest we forget this, innocent women and children area also killed in these attacks – and killed only because they happen to be in the vicinity at the time, not because they constitute the same threat as the terrorists themselves.
Are not such strikes also a choice between our “security ” and our “ideals”? And wouldn’t the Obama Administration’s higher ideals insist on capturing these men and giving them the opportunity for their self defense? After all, are they not usually being killed prior to having committed an atrocity, rather than having allegedly committed one? Does it occur to the Obama Administration or Diane Feinstein or anyone else executing or approving this draconian policy, that in eliminating the alleged terrorists we might be abandoning invaluable opportunities to uncover information which could lead us to even more of their fellow conspirators?
I am not arguing against the drone policy because I support it. But I am trying to illustrate that you cannot judge today’s actions by tomorrow’s moral standards and those who do run the risk of trading in hypocrisy.
All of which leaves us with an important question – why, when the Attorney General, several investigative reports commissioned by Congress as well as by the CIA itself thoroughly vetted this issue, has the Senate Intelligence Committee now, nearly ten years after the event, found evidence of torture and a failure of any specified gain in applying enhanced interrogation methods of American prisoners?
The answer might be found in the more relaxed security environment we find on our home front where no major scale attack has occurred in 13 years. This is why Sen. Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, could describe the CIA ‘ torture ‘ regime as “one of the lowest points in our nation’s history.” This completely inverts recent American history. The actual low point came on September 11th , 2001 when our security services were found asleep on the job and Islamists found the means to seep between the cracks in our surveillance infrastructure to commandeer American aircraft and end the lives of 3,000 Americans on American soil in a single day. Since then our security services have indeed woken up and provided a level of scrutiny that we missed under the Clinton Administration. Could it be, possibly, that our more relaxed security environment stems from the fact that the CIA applied those enhanced interrogation procedures making it more difficult for terrorists to hide from us?
President George W. Bush once said that we will never know how truly necessary were certain protective measures undertaken by our government because the very thing against which they were designed to protect us never happened. But one thing we do know: if this report serves to shackle and constrain our security services, at a time when American journalists, aid workers and security personnel are being beheaded by our avowed enemies, we will be able to look back on this era and conclude with some certainty what security measures were absolutely necessary and demand answers as to why they were not employed.