In this Christmas season of peace, love and goodwill, we find ourselves debating, in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, whether torture is ever justified. And whether waterboarding, an ancient interrogation method favored by the Nazis and prosecuted as a crime by the United States for a century, constitutes torture. Of course waterboarding is torture, even if our attorney general can’t bring himself to say so, and it is illegal under U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions. However, that didn’t stop the Bush administration from using it in its interrogations of “high value” al Qaeda leaders captured after the 9/11 attacks.
Unlike Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where American soldiers abused detainees, there are no sickening photographs of what went on in secret CIA detention centers abroad. That’s because the spy agency, against the advice of White House and Justice Department lawyers, destroyed videotapes showing the interrogation of two major al Qaeda operatives, one of whom was waterboarded. Now Congress is outraged over the destruction of the tapes, as well as it should be.
However, we don’t need to see the CIA tapes to know that our government has engaged in torture, or what is known in intelligence circles as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The CIA is known to have waterboarded three al Qaeda prisoners after 9/11, but the spy agency has told Congress that this harsh method, which simulates drowning, has not been used since 2003.
Any discussion of torture these days inevitably leads to the “ticking bomb” scenario: Would a president be justified in authorizing the illegal torture of a captured terrorist to gain information that could prevent a catastrophic attack that would kill thousands of Americans? That chilling question makes us uncomfortable because many Americans, in their own minds, are not certain what choice they would make. My guess is most would go with torture.
The leading Democratic presidential candidates have ruled out the use of torture. On the Republican side, only John McCain and Mike Huckabee have taken that position, with most of the other candidates indicating that they would allow it in extreme cases or refusing to respond to the question. McCain speaks with authority on the issue, having been horribly tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. If McCain says torture is wrong and largely ineffective, that’s good enough for me.
Remember, torture was not a subject we talked about before the 9/11 attacks. It was not what America was about in those days. But that horrifying September morning changed us, in some ways for the worse.
I doubt that we would have heard an outcry if the Bush administration had announced after the 9/11 horror that it would use any means necessary, including torture, to track down terrorists and prevent another attack on American soil. Of course, we now know the administration secretly decided to do just that, and for the longest time Congress looked the other way.
In the fall of 2002, four members of Congress met for a secret briefing on a new CIA interrogation program designed to pry critical information from terrorist suspects. Among the techniques described was waterboarding, and not one of the lawmakers, including Nancy Pelosi, then a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee and now speaker of the House, objected, according to The Washington Post. In fact, some of the lawmakers at the briefing, all sworn to secrecy, wondered if the CIA should consider even tougher measures.
John Kiriakou, a former CIA interrogator based in Pakistan, got Washington’s attention last week when he went public with the story of his participation in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first high-ranking al Qaeda leader captured after 9/11. After weeks of defiance and resistance, Kiriakou said the prisoner broke after 35 seconds of waterboarding and began talking.
In interviews with ABC News and The Washington Post, Kiriakou said the captured terrorist provided information that may have prevented new attacks and saved American lives. Even so, Kiriakou said he now believes waterboarding is torture, and “Americans are better than that.”
He added, “It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time, but we’ve moved beyond that.”
Congress is not so sure. CIA director Michael Hayden banned the use of waterboarding in 2006, but Democrats don’t trust the Bush administration. Last week, the House passed a bill that not only would specifically prohibit waterboarding but also outlaw other coercive interrogation methods, including forcing detainees to go naked or pose in a sexual manner, placing hoods over prisoners’ heads, taping their eyes, threatening them with military dogs, conducting mock executions, depriving them of food and water, or exposing them to extreme cold and heat.
Republicans say the bill goes too far, banning some practices that are now legal. President Bush has threatened to veto the measure if it clears the Senate. May I make a suggestion: Why can’t everyone agree that we should never use an interrogation technique that we would not want our own captured soldiers and intelligence agents subjected to by an enemy?
You know, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
(Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail gailey(at)sptimes.com.)