Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. If U.S. intelligence operatives had spotted him in a remote area of Pakistan and killed him with a Predator missile, most people would have said: "That’s justice."
Instead, of course, KSM was captured in an urban area of Pakistan by U.S. intelligence operatives who then interrogated him. Their methods included use of the technique known as waterboarding, thereby eliciting from him information about other terrorist plots in which innocent Americans had been targeted. Why are so many people insisting that’s an injustice, a scandal and a crime for which intelligence operatives and former government officials ought to be prosecuted?
President Obama ordered a review of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) to determine which ones his administration would – and would not – authorize. Presumably, he’d want to know which techniques are (A) effective, and (B) not so brutal as to rise to the level of "torture." But the president’s decision to release top-secret memos on the interrogation program last Thursday – against the advice of his CIA director and four former CIA directors – appears to have rendered that study moot.
On the same day those memos were released, Obama’s national intelligence director, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, told colleagues in a private memo that the now-banned EITs did indeed "produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists."
Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a front-page piece on "ethicists" alleging that psychologists and physicians who supervised CIA interrogations "broke the law and shame[d] the bedrock ethical traditions of medicine and psychology."
Left unexamined was the possibility that these health professionals had been tasked with ensuring that interrogations did not cross reasonable legal, medical and ethical boundaries, and did not reach the point that they would "shock the conscience," which as former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Fox News’ Chris Wallace, is the "American standard" for torture.
Among the released memos is one noting that physicians were, in fact, empowered to stop interrogations "if in their professional judgment the detainee may suffer severe physical or mental pain or suffering." What’s severe? Again, circumstances matter and judgments may differ. Attempting to criminalize such differences, I would argue, is appallingly unethical — not least when pushed by people who call themselves "ethicists."
What’s more, extraordinary measures were taken to protect even the vilest subjects. Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah was slammed against only a flexible wall, with cushioning around his neck to prevent injury. In the end, he provided the intelligence used to capture KSM, who in turn "yielded critical information" — according to one of the released memos — that helped foil a "second wave" of terrorist plots, with Los Angeles among the targets.
Terrorists are not criminal defendants with a "right to remain silent." They are not prisoners of war obligated only to recite their name, rank and serial number. They are "not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention." Those are the words of Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general on CNN in January 2002, who added that had Mohamed Atta "survived the attack on the World Trade Center, would we now be calling him a prisoner of war? I think not. Should Zacarias Moussaoui be called a prisoner of war? Again, I think not."
Reasonable people ought to be able to reach consensus on a few key points: Harsh interrogation methods should be used only as a last resort. They should never be used for revenge, punishment or to force confessions. There should be no torture – no hot pokers through the eyes, no pulling out fingernails with pliers. But a few nights of sleep deprivation? A few weeks of boredom? Scaring with caterpillars? Such techniques inflict "stress and duress" but they hardly "shock the conscience" – especially when weighed against what ought to be the much more shocking prospect of letting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent men, women and children be slaughtered by our enemies.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org.)