For some politicians, it is tough under the best of circumstances to do the right thing when it comes to national security. Posturing about “peace dividends” chronically results in defense budgets and end-strengths insufficient to deter future acts of aggression – and fight the wars that ensue. Intelligence programs are compromised by self-serving leaks and press-driven legislative responses. Pentagon leaders are savaged in public by legislators who thereby underscore their lack of understanding of the threats besetting our country, and the fact that they have no better answers to the challenges thus posed.
Unfortunately, a congressional by-election season in the second term of a presidency confronting widespread public misunderstanding of, and fatigue with, a global war is far from the best of circumstances. It is in such a season that President Bush confronts the determination of several members of his party in the Senate to do the politically popular – rather than the necessary – thing with respect to legislation that would govern the detention, interrogation and judicial review of captured al Qaeda terrorists and other unlawful enemy combatants.
Worse yet, these Senators – John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham – are not only encouraging their fellow Republicans to join them in breaking with President Bush. They are also giving political cover to Democrats gleeful at the chance to conceal their readiness to do the wrong thing on national security by lining up behind McCain and Company, whose number includes former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The latter supports the McCain legislation that offers enemy detainees more rights and more sharply circumscribes their interrogation than the Bush Administration believes is consistent with the national security since, according to Secretary Powell, the world is less persuaded of the moral legitimacy of our actions.
Unfortunately, as a result of such machinations, a legitimate, important but basically technical disagreement over procedures has been blown wildly out of proportion. To hear the dissident GOP Senators’ partisans on editorial pages and talk shows tell it, their efforts are all that stands between civilized norms of behavior towards al Qaeda and other terrorist detainees and the Bush team’s rampant torture, judicial mayhem and the shredding of international law (notably, the Geneva Conventions).
Poppycock. As best-selling author Richard Miniter recently reported in the New York Post on his return from a visit to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the Defense Department is bending over backwards to avoid any appearance of mistreatment of these unlawful enemy combatants. For example, the detainees at “Gitmo” are supplied with three square meals a day made up of foods to their liking (all “halal,” Islamic kosher, and a choice of vanilla or chocolate ice cream); expensive medical care (including colonoscopies, dental work and prostheses); extensive legal representation (an average of 2.2 lawyers for every detainee); and extraordinary latitude for the practice of their faith (for example, interrupting interrogations for prayers).
What is more, as Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the Guantanamo facility, makes clear in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published over the weekend, detainees have repeatedly attacked their guards, seeking to kill or at least maim them using improvised weapons fashioned from fans, cameras, plumbing and light bulbs. Lately, detainees who have been rewarded for good behavior with more lenient treatment have also taken advantage of their conditions to mount savage attacks on their guards. Some of their lawyers are suspected of facilitating terrorist communications.
Unfortunately, far from debunking charges of abuse and ending talk of the need to close this and other vital interrogation facilities, the coddling of prisoners at Gitmo seems to be intensifying the sanctimony of Bush administration critics. They insist on blurring the lines sensibly drawn by the Geneva Convention between prisoners of war (namely, military personnel from states parties who conform to the laws of war by wearing uniforms, displaying their arms, and adhering to an identified chain of command) and unlawful enemy combatants (who do not). And they adopt a posture of contemptuous moral superiority over those who disagree.
We need to remove the sanctimony from this debate. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about the extent of the rights that should be enjoyed by people believed to be among the most dangerous Islamofascist terrorists on the planet. Those who recognize the importance of neither compromising classified information – and the sources and methods by which it is obtained – nor making inevitable the unwarranted release of such individuals are not indifferent to human rights. Those who appreciate the need to use methods of interrogation more aggressive than those employed at Gitmo are not in favor of torture.
By the same token, those on the other side of these issues do not have an exclusive claim to morality’s high-ground. If, thanks to the absence of interrogation techniques that make detainees uncomfortable but fall well short of already prohibited torture, Americans are condemned to death (perhaps, ironically, in the course of a successful terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol), those responsible for denying our government such tools will bear a heavy moral burden.
At that juncture, of course, it will be easy enough – yea, even politically correct – to blame legislators who unilaterally disarmed America in critical ways. By that time, however, it will be too late for some of us.
So, as the Senate deliberates this week whether to adopt John McCain’s approach to detainee-related issues or the more robust version favored by President Bush, let us hold the Senator from Arizona and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle accountable. For all of our sakes, they should err on the side of protecting the national security. Congress should swiftly enact legislation that actually protects America by establishing sensible, practicable guidelines for: the use of aggressive, non-torture interrogation methods where absolutely necessary; legal protections for those charged with performing such interrogations; and the limitation, if essential to protect sources and methods of intelligence, of evidence shared with detainees in the course of their prosecution.