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Contentions

Debating Interrogation Techniques

There are now several media reports that the killing of Osama bin Laden, as the New York Times put it, was the “culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, including the interrogation of C.I.A. detainees in secret prisons in Eastern Europe.”

According to the Washington Post:

A crucial break appears to have come on May 2, 2005, when Pakistani special forces arrested a senior al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who had been designated bin Laden’s “official messenger” to others within the organization. Libbi was later turned over to the CIA and held at a “black site” prison where he was subjected to the harsh methods that the George W. Bush administration termed “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Libbi and other detainees pointed CIA interrogators to another messenger with close ties to the al-Qaeda leader. U.S. officials said they started only with the mystery courier’s nom de guerre, and that it took four years to uncover his actual identity, his approximate location in Pakistan and ultimately the compound where bin Laden was found.

Now, it may be that these preliminary reports are incomplete or incorrect; we may soon learn more about how the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture was collected, or we may never know all the details. But at this early stage, it appears that arguably the greatest achievement of the Obama administration, the killing of Osama bin Laden, was the result—at least in part—of policies that Obama himself was hyper-critical of.

In any event, let’s assume for the sake of argument that EITs did play a role in finding bin Laden. It doesn’t follow that they are therefore appropriate. Some people will oppose them on principle, arguing that they are wrong regardless of their efficacy. That’s a debate worth having. But those who oppose EITs should not make life too easy on themselves by hiding behind manufactured arguments. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009, and Michael Mukasey, attorney general from 2007 to 2009, have written, “As late as 2006 . . . fully half of the government knowledge about the structure and activities of al Qaeda came from those interrogations.”

This gets back to a point I’ve made before, which is that too often in our political debates we settle on a position and never concede a single point to an opposing argument. In fact, life is usually more complicated than all that–and public policies are often a mixture of strengths and drawbacks. On the matter of EITs, the president (and those who share his position) should state just how strongly they hold to their principle. For example, even if EITs elicited information that could save 100,000 innocent people, would they, as a matter of principle, oppose them? Or is their opposition contingent on outcomes? Would they oppose EITs if they saved a single life–but use them if they prevented the death of tens of thousands?


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