On one extreme of the debate over interrogating terrorists are the Jack Bauers, those who — like the lead character in Fox’s hit series “24”– think you do whatever it takes to get the information you need from someone plotting mass murder. At the other extreme is the anti-war left: It wouldn’t harm a hair on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s head to save Disneyland at Christmas.
Those of us who hold views somewhere between these poles ought to be having a serious discussion about what methods should be permissible and under what circumstances. But that’s become close to impossible. A case in point: I was on “The Abrams Report” on MSNBC last week to discuss whether Judge Michael Mukasey, during congressional hearings, should have said whether “waterboarding” — simulated drowning — constitutes torture and therefore must be prohibited.
I argued that Mukasey was right to reserve judgment. Should he be confirmed as attorney general, he’ll want to study the issue before rendering a legal opinion. He’ll want to know how painful waterboarding is, whether it inflicts permanent damage, whether it achieves results that less aggressive methods do not.
Dan Abrams, the show’s host, would hear none of it. As I tried to make my points, he aired footage of what appeared to be a subject undergoing waterboarding. It looked unpleasant. That means it’s a form of torture, he insisted, therefore it obviously must be banned.
I asked Abrams, and his other guest, liberal talk-radio host Stephanie Miller, to define torture in a sentence or two. Neither would do so. Miller said torture was like pornography — she knows it when she sees it. I tried to get them to be specific about what interrogation techniques they would allow: Sleep deprivation? Incarceration in a cold cell? Loud music? Isolation and boredom? Slaps upside the head? They would not say.
After the show, the left-wing blogs were quick to attack me. The Democratic Underground said: “Cliff May should be waterboarded.” On the Daily Kos, someone who calls himself “Black Max” accused me of having proposed that Miller be tortured. Another Web site called me a “fascist.” Anatomical and scatological terms were used to describe me as well.
Do these people not understand that we face a deadly serious dilemma? To win a war against shadowy Islamist terrorist movements will require good intelligence. To obtain that intelligence, captured terrorists must be interrogated. Which techniques are effective? Which techniques are so cruel that they should be off-limits — even if innocent lives will be lost?
Should there be procedures permissible only where there is an imminent danger? Might less harsh but still coercive techniques — inflicting what is called “stress and duress” — be allowed when interrogating a “high-value” suspect — for example, someone who knows where Osama bin Laden is hiding? A third set of rules could govern the questioning of enemy combatants held for long periods at places like Gitmo where, at this moment, lawyers and Red Cross representatives are present, interrogation rooms include lounge chairs and detainees may decline to be interrogated at all.
Should the president be required to authorize “enhanced” interrogations? Could Congress perform oversight? Would it be useful to set up a National Security Court for this and related purposes?
I also wonder: How much must we tell al Qaeda and other terrorists about what to expect? If terrorists know they may be waterboarded, they will prepare themselves to withstand the ordeal. In fact, waterboarding has been used to train and toughen American commandoes and spies.
Dan and Stephanie, please take note: Torture is generally defined as the intentional infliction of “pain and suffering” so “severe” that it “shocks the conscience.” That clearly includes gouging out eyes and prying off fingernails. Does it rule out any and all techniques designed to make a terrorist feel alone, abandoned, vulnerable and dependent on his captors? Does an unlawful combatant — one who flagrantly and routinely violates the most fundamental laws of war — deserve the same respectful treatment as a soldier who has fought honorably?
It has been widely reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding and, as a result, he surrendered intelligence that led to the foiling of terrorist plots and the saving of innocent lives. Do you regret that? Would you tell those sworn to protect and defend Americans never to do it again — accepting the consequences of that policy?
We won’t be able to answer such difficult questions unless the moral posturing and partisan maneuvering stop, and a serious debate begins.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)