Friday, April 17, 2009

What if a "slap to the face with fingers slightly spread" could have prevented this?

Or "grasping" a guy by his shirt collars? Or keeping him from sleeping for several days? Or whacking him in the stomach with the back of your hand? Or making him stand uncomfortably in the same position for a long time? These are among the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that were the subject of the internal CIA-DOJ memos disclosed yesterday by the Obama Administration. And the question largely missing from the reactions of politicians and pundits is this simple one: what would you have done to prevent 9/11 from happening?

Let's be honest, now. Who among us in late 2001 and 2002 -- when the likelihood of further deadly al Qaeda attacks on Americans was widely accepted as a virtual certainty -- would have insisted that CIA officers treat Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, or Ramzi Binalshibh nicely (or even demanded that they be supplied with lawyers)? Precious few of us, I think. As this Washington Post story reminds us, then, there were no partisan lines, Constitutional objections or ethical qualms about dealing roughly with key captured al Qaeda operatives:

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 [CIA] briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
And this:

"In fairness, the environment was different then because we were closer to Sept. 11 and people were still in a panic," said one U.S. official present during the early briefings. "But there was no objecting, no hand-wringing. The attitude was, 'We don't care what you do to those guys as long as you get the information you need to protect the American people.' "

Exactly. The environment was different then. We all wanted to get those guys and didn't much care what had to be done to get them. Absolutely no one in a position of power or leadership in either party wanted even to suggest that the hunt for al Qaeda's leadership and the effort to thwart follow-on attacks be constrained by any sort of solicitude for captured terrorists. To be sure, there were plenty of deep concerns about why the intelligence community, federal law enforcement and two administrations had not "connected the dots" and disrupted the 9/11 attack -- concerns that would surface in the 9/11 Commission hearings and other forums. But top Members of Congress who now take a far different line didn't blink at waterboarding, much less face slapping or sleep deprivation. They all wanted to prevent another 9/11.

Perhaps that was the reason we have not experienced another attack; perhaps not. In any case, many Americans seem to want to move on, forget how fervently they hoped and prayed that their government would prevent another attack, and leave a small dedicated, resourceful and courageous group of intelligence officers holding the bag.

Of all the reasons why the "anti-torture" mania sweeping segments of America's political and media leadership might turn out badly, the negative effect it will inexorably have (and probably has had already) within CIA and the intelligence community is the most significant. From the time the first seven-member CIA "Jawbreaker" team landed in Afghanistan's Panshir Valley right after 9/11 to forge an anti-Taliban coalition with the Northern Alliance, CIA's intelligence war against al Qaeda has been extraordinarily effective. It has also depended heavily on a core of highly trained and experienced officers. The man who led that first team, Gary Schroen, was then a very senior leader, pushing 60 years of age, who responded to a recall from retirement to once again serve his country. By the time he was relieved, the rout of the Taliban was under way. While no one is indispensable, it's clear that his was not the kind of job for which there is a long line of suitable applicants. In future years, will men and women like Schroen be available -- even fore go retirement -- to march into grave danger and assume great risk when a few years later they may be hassled by Congressional committees, investigated, even indicted?

What are your thoughts? Post a comment.


  1. Excellent post. Ultimately, there is no single rule for what is reasonable. Until all the foppish nitwits have personally been hoisted on their own slack-jawed petard, we'll continue to have spineless responses as in this "torture" case. Ain't war hell?

  2. "And the question largely missing from the reactions of politicians and pundits is this simple one: what would you have done to prevent 9/11 from happening?"

    I think it's dangerous reasoning to justify "torture" or whatever you want to call what was done by saying this. Hindsight is 20/20. Of course we would have been justified in doing almost whatever necessary to avoid 9/11. But do you really think we should treat every single *suspected* terrorist or terrorist supporter in our captivity as if they have information that would prevent another 9/11? Should we do that and just consider that those who really have no information, and maybe aren't even guilty of anything except hanging around the wrong crowd, must be "tortured" anyway for the good of the country, just in case?

    That seems to me to violate basic human rights this country stands for, and I'm not talking about constitutional rights afforded to citizens, I'm talking about the balance between the right of the individual to be treated fairly balanced against the best interest of society, which seems to me to be a universal principle that should apply to all people. There have been nations in the past that I have prioritized the good of the society over the rights of the individual, and those nations are not regarded highly by Americans.

    (Note that I use "torture" in quotations because I don't care much what we call it)

  3. By the way, what makes us so sure that our temperament directly following 9/11 was the appropriate one, and the one we have now is not?