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President Obama has declassified and publicly released memos from the Justice Department's Office Of Legal Counsel (OLC) to the Bush Administration. The memos were sent between 2002 and 2005, and discussed opinions on the legality of aggressive, controversial interrogation techniques proposed for use by the CIA on terrorist detainees, specifically, techniques to be used to extract intelligence from high-level Al Qaeda members. You can find the text of those memos here.
The most controversial interrogation technique used by the Bush Administration was waterboarding, which has been categorized as torture. Former CIA chief Michael Hayden has confirmed that three top Al Qaeda detainees were waterboarded - Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks; Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative tied to the Sept. 11 plot; and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi who played a key role in the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in 2000.
Other aggressive interrogation techniques included sleep deprivation, confinement in close quarters, standing for long periods, loud music, slapping, and others.
The Obama adminstration says the President decided to release the classified OLC memos following an internal debate that went on "for weeks." Obama has already banned the controversial interrogation techniques, and stated he has no plans to prosecute CIA personnel who carried out the interrogations. Here is a link to Obama's statement about the memo releases.
About intelligence gathering, President Obama said the following:
"...as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past."
That sounds good, doesn't it ? We should always strive to be moral. Obama must be right.
But maybe there's more to think about.
Let's take a trip back in time to 2002, when 9/11 was still fresh in our minds, when the United States had captured high-level Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, and was trying to extract information from him. Here's how the released OLC memos describe that environment:
"As we understand it, Zubaydah is one of the highest ranking members of the Al Qaeda organization, with which the United States is engaged in an international armed conflict following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001...Zubaydah is currently being held by the United States. The interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information about terrorist networds inside the United States or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas. Zubaydah has become accustomed to a certain level of treatment and displays no signs of willingness to disclose further information. Moreover, your intelligence indicates that there is currently a level of "chatter" equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks. In light of the information you believe Zubaydah has and the high level of threat you believe now exists, you wish to move the interrogation into what you described as an "increased pressure phase."
Hmmm. We took terrorist networks and future terrorist attacks inside the United States pretty seriously back in 2002. Imagine being President Bush, faced with the dilemma of preventing another attack versus roughing up a high-level terrorist like Zubaydah to find out what he knows to stop such an attack. Suddenly, the "moral" thing to do isn't so clear. We all know now which path Bush chose. He waterboarded Zubaydah.
Now consider what fruit was borne by Bush's harsh interrogation techniques. Former CIA chief Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey tell us in a Wall Street Journal editorial they wrote which rips Obama for divulging the secret OLC memos. The editorial is titled, The President Ties His Own Hands On Terror:
Disclosure of the techniques is likely to be met by faux outrage, and is perfectly packaged for media consumption. It will also incur the utter contempt of our enemies. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the people who beheaded Nicholas Berg and Daniel Pearl, and have tortured and slain other American captives, are likely to be shamed into giving up violence by the news that the U.S. will no longer interrupt the sleep cycle of captured terrorists even to help elicit intelligence that could save the lives of its citizens.
Which brings us to the next of the justifications for disclosing and thus abandoning these measures: that they don't work anyway, and that those who are subjected to them will simply make up information in order to end their ordeal. This ignorant view of how interrogations are conducted is belied by both experience and common sense. If coercive interrogation had been administered to obtain confessions, one might understand the argument. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who organized the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, among others, and who has boasted of having beheaded Daniel Pearl, could eventually have felt pressed to provide a false confession. But confessions aren't the point. Intelligence is. Interrogation is conducted by using such obvious approaches as asking questions whose correct answers are already known and only when truthful information is provided proceeding to what may not be known. Moreover, intelligence can be verified, correlated and used to get information from other detainees, and has been; none of this information is used in isolation.
The terrorist Abu Zubaydah (sometimes derided as a low-level operative of questionable reliability, but who was in fact close to KSM and other senior al Qaeda leaders) disclosed some information voluntarily. But he was coerced into disclosing information that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh, another of the planners of Sept. 11, who in turn disclosed information which -- when combined with what was learned from Abu Zubaydah -- helped lead to the capture of KSM and other senior terrorists, and the disruption of follow-on plots aimed at both Europe and the U.S. Details of these successes, and the methods used to obtain them, were disclosed repeatedly in more than 30 congressional briefings and hearings beginning in 2002, and open to all members of the Intelligence Committees of both Houses of Congress beginning in September 2006. Any protestation of ignorance of those details, particularly by members of those committees, is pretense.
As already disclosed by Director Hayden, as late as 2006, even with the growing success of other intelligence tools, fully half of the government's knowledge about the structure and activities of al Qaeda came from those interrogations.
There is little doubt that the harsh interrogations used by the Bush administration saved innocent lives, but they did cause discomfort for the captured terrorists. You tell me, what was the moral thing for Bush to have done ? Keep Zubaydah and KSM comfortable while Al Qaeda killed more innocents ? It would be great to live in President Obama's idealistic and moral world, but the real world isn't always that black and white. Sometimes it's very gray.
And, why do we have intelligence agencies ? Isn't it in order to catch those who would perpetrate violent acts against the United States ? Isn't that the whole goal ?
Just a few things to consider before the inevitable call from certain circles to haul President Bush off to the hoosegow for crimes against humanity.