In its way, it is a sign of a return to normality. For decades, the CIA was spooked by the possibility of congressional hearings and lawsuits into forswearing any risk-taking acts. Immediately after 9/11, everyone agreed that the CIA needed a down-and-dirty ability to operate in the twilight world of our enemies. Now, five years later, CIA officers are scared of lawsuits again.
According to The Washington Post, CIA counterterrorism officers are rushing to buy legal insurance. They worry about their exposure in conducting interrogations that have broken up ongoing plots and helped roll up much of al-Qaida's top ranks. President Bush wants legislation defining prosecutable conduct more precisely, but key Republican senators are resisting it, on the grounds, apparently, that the CIA should be able to fend off terrorists and lawyers all at once.
Bush's speech last week detailing how terrorists Khalid Sheik Mohammed (the mastermind of 9/11 known as KSM) and Abu Zubaydah were made to talk using "special" interrogation techniques in secret CIA prisons overseas was an overdue entry into a debate dominated by the administration's critics. In a key victory for them, the Department of Defense has released a new field manual that authorizes only noncoercive techniques. The toughest allowable method is separating a detainee from his comrades, and this requires the approval of a four-star combatant commander.
This overly restrictive standard is likely to migrate across the U.S. government and apply to the CIA as well. This is foolish, because the CIA doesn't deal with lawful, captured enemy soldiers — who should indeed be protected from coercive interrogations — as the military does. Instead, the agency handles terrorists who might have information that can save countless lives.
One reason critics have been faring so well in this debate is that they dishonestly conflate basically any interrogation method not acceptable in a domestic-criminal context with "torture." According to ABC News, six extraordinary techniques were approved for use against top-level terrorism suspects, including shaking and slapping, stress positions, cold cells and "waterboarding" (simulated drowning). Some of these techniques aren't close to torture; others could be torture depending on their severity; and waterboarding is close to, or perhaps over, the line.
Most terrorism suspects can't withstand waterboarding for more than 14 seconds, and KSM impressed his interrogators by holding out for more than two minutes. In a forthright debate, Congress might ban it. On the other hand, we might decide that in extreme cases involving top terrorism suspects, we will subject them to the same waterboarding used on our own military during Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training. Certainly for most Americans, reserving this expedient for the likes of KSM wouldn't "shock the conscience," to borrow the phrase often used to define torture.
Because they don't have faith in the sheer moral force of their argument, opponents of coercive interrogation also contend that it "never works," because it only forces people to lie. But it doesn't make sense that everyone always lies. Some people will lie; others will tell the truth. In this vein, Bush critics claim that Abu Zubaydah didn't give us any useful information and was "tortured" needlessly. But CIA officials say that "he was lying, and things were going nowhere" prior to tougher interrogations. Even journalist Ron Suskind, a Bush critic, says that "we did get some things of value."
Opponents of coercive interrogations want to conjure a just-so world, where terrorists always tell us what they know through the sweet art of persuasion and where we never have to do anything that morally discomfits us. Would that the world were so clean and simple. Let's hope the judgment that scholar Paul Rahe rendered on those unwilling to make morally complicated choices prior to World War II never has to be made against opponents of coercive interrogation: "They were more nice than wise. In refusing to commit the smaller sin, they incurred a far greater wrong."