One of President Obama's first official acts was to announce the closing of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay and to issue a new executive order on permissible interrogation techniques. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," the president proclaimed in his inaugural address. Once again, he dismisses a genuine dilemma as a false choice. There is no conflict between the two because "It is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and moral high ground to … deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorism organizations around the world." Is it? Before 9/11, the U.S. was not known around the world for subjecting prisoners to harsh questioning. Did that protect us? Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has offered the view that tough interrogation succeeded in getting some of the worst al-Qaida terrorists to talk. "The Abu Zubaydahs, the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds, I just can't conceive of any other way, given their character, given their commitment to what it is they do" he told the BBC.
This is not to suggest that stress positions, sleep deprivation, or waterboarding (which was reportedly used in only three cases) are or are not torture. But it is possible, reasonable people can agree, that in certain situations such rough treatment of a detainee might actually be the more moral choice -- for example, if half a million people would die from a nuclear explosive hidden in a large city. And once again, one senses that Obama himself knows this and simply chooses to de-emphasize it.
Buried in his statement about interrogations was the promise to create a committee to consider whether the Army Field Manual techniques are too limiting "when employed by departments or agencies outside the military." And when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked CIA chief Leon Panetta about a ticking-bomb scenario at his confirmation hearing, Panetta said, "If we had a ticking-bomb situation and, obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the President of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need."
The White House did not contradict the CIA director, which isn't surprising. We're beginning to understand the pattern. Wave away serious moral and or policy quandaries; grandstand about your own superior morals; and hope no one notices that you are contradicting yourself.