Treatment of the torture issue during the second Republican presidential debate illustrates what's great and what can go terribly wrong with these presidential face-offs.
With the breathless urgency of a racetrack announcer, Fox News' Britt Hume, spelled out a hypothetical ticking-time-bomb scenario worthy of Fox TV's Jack Bauer thriller "24."
Hume's scenario involved simultaneous suicide bombers attacking shopping malls, captured suspects taken to the military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp and the belief by U.S. intelligence that another, larger attack is planned. "How aggressively would you interrogate" the captured suspects? Hume asked.
The question triggered a bizarre political version of the old radio game show, "Can You Top This?"
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he would tell the interrogators to "use every method. … It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of." Including "water-boarding?" asked Hume. Yes, answered Giuliani.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said that to get "information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques," he would tell the defense secretary only one sentence: "Get the information."
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo: "We're wondering about whether water-boarding would be a … a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you."
That thrilled the crowd. Jack Bauer is a fictional counter-terrorist played by Kiefer Southerland on "24." He is known to employ such tools as fire, rope, electric drills and other sharp objects to hasten his interrogations.
Not to be outdone, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney endorsed "enhanced interrogation techniques" and sparked enthusiastic applause with: "Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo? My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo!"
Ironically the only person on that stage to actually have been a tortured POW, threw cold water on the Bauer option. "It's not about the terrorists, it's about us," he said. "It's about what kind of country we are."
No applause. That's what McCain gets for shedding light and not just heat.
Here's a real-life scenario that the candidates should hear about: Last November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind "24."
Accompanied by three experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators, he described how the show actually was undermining the academy's classroom lessons with the false message that torture is a jim-dandy idea in the real world.
As Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in February, the meeting discussed how the show's ticking-time-bomb scenario makes a thrilling hour on TV but is virtually unknown in real life.
And it would be a big help, the dean told the Hollywood folks, if "24" at least would sometimes show how torture produces false information and actually damages counter- terrorist efforts.
Entertainment Weekly reported that the show's top producer Joel Surnow has decided to shy away from torture, not because it is an immoral or impractical technique but because it has been overused as a device in his show. That's show biz.
As for Guantanamo, researchers at Seton Hall's law school went to the trouble last year of reading 517 Guantanamo case files that the Pentagon had released. They found only 8 percent of the detainees were characterized as al-Qaida fighters and only 5 percent fit President Bush's description of being "picked up on the battlefield" or anywhere else by U.S. troops.
Instead, 86 percent were handed over to us by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance for reasons that are not always quite clear. Many were low-level conscripts, drafted into service of the Taliban regime. None were Taliban leaders of any note. Yet in return for bounties of $5,000 to $10,000, a lot of suspects were rounded up to be sorted out later.
Yet as congressional leaders debate whether to shut Guantanamo down, Romney wants to double it. Who does he have in mind to be locked up?
The uncomfortable truth is that our side has gotten some suspects right but made some big mistakes about others in the fog of war. We don't know how many of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo have actual evidence against them, but there's a way to find out. It's called habeas corpus, the fundamental right of individuals to be protected against arbitrary detention without a trial.
Do our presidential candidates still believe in that? All of them need to be asked, although in the heat of a presidential campaign I'm afraid of what they might answer. Sometimes the fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of politics.