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
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.
"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
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 G-d."