After 9/11, Americans wanted one thing from Washington: to prevent future terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush, the CIA and other hard-working officials delivered. For their trouble, a handful of those individuals now have reason to fear that they may be ruined.
My guess is that President Obama realizes it was a big mistake for his administration to release four memos written by Bush administration lawyers sanctioning enhanced interrogation techniques. Already, rage on the left has prompted Obama to go squishy on his once-insistent opposition to prosecuting any Bush administration officials. Now he says he might let his attorney general prosecute Bush lawyers.
That would be criminalizing the politics of 2002. George Tenet wrote in his book "At the Center of the Storm," "After 9/11, gripped by the same emotions and fears, Congress exhorted the intelligence community to take more risks to protect the country." Civil rights? Then-Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., noted at a 2002 Senate intelligence committee that "we are not living in times in which lawyers can say no to an operation just to play it safe." Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz defended the use of rough treatment -- "the third degree" -- in order "to elicit information from terrorists about continuing threats." The Bush administration authorized techniques that the ACLU calls torture.
Seven years later, Obama banned those techniques, as he promised. But in releasing the memos last week, Obama unwittingly reinforced Osama bin Laden's view of America as a country of pantywaists. Now America's enemies know they have nothing to fear but bad lawyering if U.S. forces catch them.
The memos describe "enhanced" techniques used on 28 high-value detainees. Protocol called for operatives to begin with tamer methods. To wit: the "attention grasp," the "facial slap" and "dietary manipulation -- that is, "presenting detainees with a bland, unappetizing but nutritionally complete diet." Read: Ensure Plus. Really.
"Walling" involved pushing a detainee into a wall -- but a phony wall to prevent injury. The CIA was going to try to scare al-Qaida biggie Abu Zubaydah with insects, but the bugs had to be harmless and not cause an allergic reaction. I can see the al-Qaida boys chortling in their cave over the very idea that these techniques would even be controversial -- not to mention out of bounds under the Obama administration.
If the tamer methods did not work, operatives could ask CIA headquarters for permission to use more daunting techniques -- such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding. Three detainees were waterboarded before the last waterboarding in March 2003. The memos revealed that two detainees -- Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (aka KSM) -- were water boarded a total of 266 times.
Some maintain that the CIA might have learned what it needed to know without waterboarding. But as one memo reported, before the questioning got tough, "KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will know.'"
The questioning got tougher. As the memo noted, the CIA believes that "the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001."
And: Once "enhanced techniques" were used on KSM, interrogations "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' … to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner' into a building in Los Angeles."
Do I like waterboarding? No, but it is not life threatening; in extreme cases, I can live with it. And I'll take waterboarding over a 9/11 in Los Angeles any day.
One last point: The Navy has used waterboarding in training. Obama put a stop to the "enhanced" techniques because he believes they have tarnished America's image abroad, which makes Americans less safe. People of goodwill can disagree on that point.
But when Obama opened the door for his attorney general to prosecute Bush lawyers, that flip-flop told U.S. intelligence and law enforcement operatives that Obama's assurances cannot be trusted. That can't be good for America's safety.
Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who served on the Bush Defense Policy Board, was appalled. "If they try to prosecute that, that should spark mass resignations in the government," he told me Tuesday.
As for Obama, Wilson said, "This is a guy who was teaching law. Good God."