“It’s very hard to maintain a Sept. 12 view of the world,” says David Nahmias, a thought that well explains why some CIA agents may soon face criminal prosecution.
Nahmias, recently appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court after a career of prosecuting, among others, terrorists after Sept. 11, spoke those words a few days before the Obama administration reopened a criminal probe of CIA interrogators. But his observation about the difference between the raw wounds of The Day After and our more comfortable perspective eight years hence is right on target.
Let’s be honest. Liberals can get away with tsk-tsking about a handful of unauthorized CIA interrogation techniques — some of which would fit right into a Monty Python spoof: “Talk, or I’ll speak ill of your mother! And after that, turn on an electric drill in this very room!” — precisely because the CIA’s interrogations helped to prevent another terror attack on U.S. soil.
Had just one of the foiled terror plots gone off, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Some commentators have jumped on the conclusion by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, in a 2004 report released publicly Monday concurrent to the reopening of the probe, that gauging the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) is a “subjective process and not without some concern.”
Read on, however, and you find that Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s highest-level henchmen, “appeared to be more cooperative” after going through simulated drowning known as waterboarding. His cooperation included helping to identify Jose Padilla and other terrorists.
You find that another terrorist who provided valuable information, Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, did so only after “receiving additional EITs.”
And you find that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and the man who personally beheaded the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, was “an accomplished resistor” who “provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete.” After being subjected to EITs, he became “probably the most prolific” source of good intelligence gathered through interrogations.
The point here is two-fold. First, those who argue against these interrogation techniques on grounds of both morality and their supposed lack of effectiveness cannot have it both ways.
If you want to object to actions such as waterboarding for moral reasons, fine. But don’t pretend that eschewing these techniques wouldn’t have put thousands of innocent American lives at grave risk from terrorists. The inspector general’s report recounts a litany of plots blocked thanks to knowledge gleaned from interrogations, some of which certainly came to light through the use of rougher questioning techniques.
The second point is that the CIA officers who employed these techniques did so at a time when another attack was thought to be imminent. They were, by all accounts, operating on ever-shifting ground in terms of legal authorizations and security imperatives. We cannot treat them as criminals now just because things turned out OK.
In so many ways it is good that we no longer have the Sept. 12 mind-set: That was a mind-set of fear. But the agents working then did not have the luxury of eight years’ worth of security and perspective. Again, we have that luxury only because those agents’ work gave it to us.
Perhaps the saddest commentary in all of this came, those several years ago, from unnamed officers cited in the report. Realizing that the Sept. 12 view would fade away, they feared that the American public that demanded security of them at the time would turn on them in the future. “Ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this … [but] it has to be done,” was the way one of them summed up such worries.
Shame on us for proving that officer right.