Saturday, April 25, 2009

Handling the Truth

We're having a strange debate on torture that isn't clear enough to say we are having a debate on torture.

One of the problems is that we are only debating whether we should torture based on the widespread assumption of our leaders in the White House and Congress plus our media that we did indeed torture under the Bush administration. The only debate seems to be whether we should put those who authorized or conducted what is called torture. Their debate is over in Washington. D.C.:

"We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history," President Obama said when he ordered the release of the Justice Department interrogation memos. Actually, no. Not at all. We were attacked on 9/11. We responded to that attack with remarkable restraint in the use of force, respect for civil liberties, and even solicitude for those who might inadvertently be offended, let alone harmed, by our policies. We've fought a war on jihadist terror in a civilized, even legalized, way. Those who have been on the front and rear lines of that war--in the military and the intelligence agencies, at the Justice Department and, yes, in the White House--have much to be proud of. The rest of us, who've been asked to do little, should be grateful.

The dark and painful chapter we have to fear is rather the one President Obama may be ushering in. This would be a chapter in which politicians preen moralistically as they throw patriotic officials, who helped keep this country safe, to the wolves, and in which national leaders posture politically while endangering the nation's security.

We need to debate whether we torture and what torture is. And if these debates are held, we should conclude that nobody should be prosecuted over what they did in our name to protect us.

If I may be so bold let me set out what I think the policy should be.

Strategypage has a useful post on the issue of torture. The public debate on this has gone beyond reason, with the definition of torture broadened to just about include placing a stale chocolate on the prisoner's pillow.

One, torture will get a prisoner to talk. If the prisoner is someone you know has information, torture works.

Two, what doesn't work is routine torture of people swept up in a broad dragnet. In this case, since everyone will talk and most people being tortured know nothing, they will talk about anything they believe will stop the torture. This does not work.

Three, as a general rule, we should not torture. We are better than that.

Four, torture must be defined and it should not include merely harsh measures of questioning under pressure. While we must have limits to what we do, those limits should not allow our enemies to carry out their plans.

Five, as much as this is revolting, we should accept that there will be rare cases where we need to torture to save a lot of people. It is suicidal to say that even in extreme cases we won't torture to save American lives.

If these factors are part of the debate on torture, it will preserve our safety while preserving our values.

If we forget these issues, the "torture" debate is only a matter of trying to harm our war effort. That is exactly the point for many of the "anti-torture" side.

Let me add two other points to consider in our debate:

Six, our enemies do what is clearly defined as torture. It is a strange world where humiliation as happended at Abu Ghraib and waterboarding under medical guidelines are torture but a quick beheading is not.

Seven, if waterboarding is torture, why do domestic opponents of "torture" routinely inflict this method on their fellow protesters in public demonsrations? Do opponents of capital punishment hang their fellow protesters to show the horror of the process? Does MADD tell its members to liquor up and drive fast down a crowded streed to show the horrors of drunk driving? If I may be so bold, the fact that lefties will submit to waterboarding but not teeth drilling or any of the other methods our enemies are eager to use should tell us something about what we do.

I'm not saying we should make waterboarding the first recourse. It is no doubt terrifying. But we've gotten information from the rare subjects we've used it on. And we should admit that there might even be circumstances where we might even need to do worse. I can't imagine we'd ever be in a position where we know we must clearly torture or large numbers of innocent people will die horrible deaths, but I'm not willing to rule it out.

In the period after 9/11, a broad spectrum of opinion approved of our response to 9/11, including both our interrogation methods and our destruction of Saddam's regime to make sure he would not strike us, too, or help others to strike us. So if there is a program to identify and punish those who carried out that consensus, a lot of people doing the moral preening now will be swept up in that net.

Once the cleansing of the "guilty" begins, the process might not be controllable. I don't think a lot of people can actually handle the truth.

UPDATE: Porter Goss fingers the hypocrites who knew very well what was expected of our intelligence services and knew what they were doing to meet those expectations:

I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues. They did not vote to stop authorizing CIA funding. And for those who now reveal filed "memorandums for the record" suggesting concern, real concern should have been expressed immediately-- to the committee chairs, the briefers, the House speaker or minority leader, the CIA director or the president's national security adviser -- and not quietly filed away in case the day came when the political winds shifted. And shifted they have.

Ah yes, I remember the reports on those filed away objections. The CIA was on super secret double probation by those Solons of the Potomic. But we knew our Congress was filled with people like that. After all, these are the people who think that the statement " I was for it before I was against it" is a sign of their nuance and brilliance.

God help us all. They're in charge of our security now. I'm sure they also have a new memo filed away showing they really warned the intelligence agencies to continue doing what they've done despite the new guidance to avoid being mean. Nothing will ever be their fault with this routine!

This will work out just swell, I'm sure.