Too Good For This World: Waterboarding and Its Discontents

Posted: Jan 11, 2008 12:01 AM
Too Good For This World: Waterboarding and Its Discontents

It’s been eclipsed in the news for just a moment by all the hubbub over the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire presidential primary, but earlier you may have noticed the latest suggestion in Congress and Medialand over how to conduct the war on terror: Go after the good guys.

Honest. Not the enemy. But the CIA. Not its chief but the lower-downs. Maybe even the grunts. The foot soldiers who do the real work, take the real risks, and who get their hands and maybe even their consciences dirty. Because they’ve got a real war for fight, not another Power Point presentation to prepare or computer projection to analyze.

Besides, you can be sure the higher-ups long ago took every precaution to assure what used to be called Plausible Deniability. You see their names and pictures in the paper from time to time — the well-tailored bureaucrats with clean fingernails who sit in air-conditioned offices at Langley issuing memos designed to cover their precious backsides. Just in case, as they say, Questions Arise.

Rather than go after those at the very top of the organizational chart, congressional investigators are homing in on the CIA’s clandestine service and those in it — the agents who’ve done the dirty work, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or in secret prisons around the world that don’t officially exist.

These agents are the latest targets of the second-guessers in Congress, in the media, and in general. All of these worthies sound shocked — shocked! — at what Americans on the front lines in this war on terror may have done for no better reason than to protect the rest of us.

It turns out that our people may actually have poured water down some innocent terrorist’s nose in an attempt to make the subject think he’s about to drown unless he tells them what they want to know. Like the plans for the next 9-11.

They may even have mistreated some real innocents, for identities do have a way of getting confused in wartime — just ask anybody who’s ever been subjected to “friendly” fire. This is the nature of the world in which we live. Let’s not pretend that the choices to be made in fighting this war or any other are simple.

What a difference a few years can make. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, leading figures in Congress who were briefed on the CIA’s anti-terrorist tactics were demanding more action against those who had attacked this country, not less.

The leaders of the intelligence committees of both houses of Congress — the so-called Gang of Four — were thoroughly briefed on the tactics being used back then, including waterboarding. Their response? To quote the testimony of Porter Goss, who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee before he was director of the CIA, “the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.”

When this bipartisan set of congressional leaders — which included Nancy Pelosi, now speaker of the House — got an hour-long virtual tour of the CIA’s overseas prisons, and the harsh tactics used there, including waterboarding, no objections were raised.

Indeed, according to officials present, at least two of the lawmakers asked the CIA to push harder for information. The official conducting the briefing “was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough,” to quote one of the participants in a meeting held in September of 2002.

But that was then. The events of September 11, 2001, were still fresh in the nation’s memory. But there hasn’t been another successful terrorist attack since, at least not in this country. And as the danger seems to diminish, we grow more sensitive to the civil liberties of those who would destroy our own — or rather just destroy us, period.

The tapes of those interrogations, including waterboarding, now have been destroyed, for they would have made a great anti-American propaganda weapon once they were leaked, as surely they would have been one day. And the tapes might also have revealed the identities of those American agents.

So now, years later, some congressmen are in the usual medium-to-high dudgeon over the tapes’ destruction. And a formal criminal investigation is under way lest any signal service to the nation’s security go unpunished. In short, the country’s anti-anti-terrorists are in a snit.

In a curious way, all this criticism is a tribute to the current administration. How’s that? Well, imagine that there had been another successful terrorist attack on these shores that claimed still more thousands of lives, even tens of thousands if the more grandiose ambitions of al-Qaida were fulfilled. Would anybody now be outraged at the possibility that our intelligence agencies might not be fighting the terrorists by Marquess of Queensberry rules?

Unlikely. On the contrary, CIA officials would doubtless be called on the carpet, and accused of not doing nearly enough to squeeze information out of the terrorists who had fallen into our hands.

But no major terrorist attack having occurred in this country since September 11, 2001, we’re all supposed to be terribly upset that those plotting to kill as many Americans as possible might have been denied all the rights, privileges and protections ordinarily accorded fully accredited, properly uniformed, legitimate prisoners of war.

We have become so used to blurring the distinction between legal and illegal combatants, between prisoners taken in conventional battle and cutthroats out to murder innocent civilians of all ages, that it’s almost assumed now that terrorists are entitled to be treated according to the Geneva Convention — even though it spells out certain requirements for claiming the rights of a prisoner of war, like being responsible to a sovereign government and fighting in uniform.

This debate over waterboarding is largely abstract now, since the CIA abandoned the practice a few years ago. Once it became public knowledge that waterboarding really isn’t designed to be fatal, but rather to convince the prisoner that it is, and that he’s about to be drowned unless he tells all, the tactic largely lost its usefulness. But before it did, the technique is said to have played a crucial role in extracting vital information from top al-Qaida operatives like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is now in custody at Guantanamo, thank goodness.

Though he refused to cooperate with American intelligence for months after his capture, it’s said that it took only a minute or so under water for KSM, as he’s known in the official records, to start talking. The intelligence he provided was instrumental in the capture and/or conviction of at least six major terrorist suspects and the prevention of major attacks on civilian targets in this country and abroad, including a scheme to send the Brooklyn Bridge crashing into the East River.

Knowing what we now know, would we really risk the lives of thousands of innocents rather than permit American operatives to use their most effective technique against a mass killer like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who once bragged about directing the September 11th attacks? (And claimed to have personally beheaded Daniel Pearl, too.)

But the question in Congress has become whether those who conducted his successful interrogation should be punished and exposed. By all means, if the law has been broken, those who broke it in the course of effectively preventing another September 11th should be tried, convicted, and punished — and then given a medal. For the law is the law. But duty is duty. One does not cancel out the other.

Once the head of the CIA’s clandestine service at the time these tapes were destroyed is properly reamed out by a congressional investigating committee, or even put in jail, he will still have the satisfaction of duty done. And it would be an honor to shake his hand.

As for any politician who takes the high ethical ground, at least in his own opinion, and speaks glibly of going after those American agents who have used harsh tactics against terrorists, he should be asked: How many innocent lives would you be willing to risk in order to spare a Khalid Sheik Mohammed a minute of stark fear?

That’s an ethical question, too. For we are all responsible not only for what we do but for what we fail to do, and that includes failing to protect the innocent or our own intelligence agents.