Cliff May

Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups live in a shadow world where they plot to kill you and me. If we expect our intelligence professionals to prevent them from succeeding, we must give them the tools required to get the job done.

But in recent days, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have not been providing those tools. They’ve been taking them away. There are rank-and-file Democrats who think this is wrong – but in an election year few have been bold enough to dissent loudly or clearly.

It doesn’t take Jack Bauer to understand: One way to gather useful intelligence on terrorism is by interrogating captured terrorists. Torture is illegal – in all cases without exception. But short of torture are a variety of interrogation techniques that seek to elicit information by inflicting stress and duress; by rewarding cooperation and punishing defiance. Such techniques are aggressive and coercive, to be sure, but they do not necessarily “shock the conscience” -- the commonly agreed definition of torture.

Last week, President Bush was presented with a bill that would have prohibited the CIA from utilizing such methods even in cases involving unlawful combatants believed to have knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks. Instead, the bill would have restricted the CIA to the mild interrogation methods authorized for soldiers in the U.S. Army Field Manual – a document terrorists can access, read and utilize for training purposes.

Bush promptly vetoed the bill, saying it would outlaw techniques that have been used in the past to “prevent a number of attacks.” Among them: assaults against a Marine camp in Djibouti and a U.S. consulate in Pakistan, and plots to fly passenger airplanes into buildings in Los Angeles and London.

The President emphasized that his objection to the bill was “not over any particular interrogation technique; for instance, it is not over waterboarding, which is not part of the current CIA program,” and which the CIA itself banned in 2006 -- having acknowledged that it had used the technique rarely, but successfully; for example on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks.

An attempt this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to overturn the President’s veto failed. But Pelosi has continued to block House members from voting on an additional measure – a compromise bill, passed by a bipartisan 68 to 29 majority in the Senate -- to restore to American intelligence agencies the authority they formerly had to monitor foreign terrorist suspects abroad without first demonstrating “probable cause” to a judge -- a difficult standard to meet since many of those planning terrorism have not yet committed any crime.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.