It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”
I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:
The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters.
Nowhere does the report offer any credit to those same officials for preventing more attacks on the American homeland. Nor does the report seriously entertain the possibility–which I think a probability–that the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.
This is a sign, in my view, of the dangerous triumphalism and complacency which has taken control of the public discourse because there were no more 9/11s and because the architects of those attacks have been either captured or killed. Perhaps the Boston Marathon bombing will instill some renewed urgency into the public debate about countering terrorism, but I doubt it–bad as the Boston bombing was, it was not deadly enough to change our mindset in the way that 9/11 did.
We are feeling secure now, and in our security we are seeing a tendency, exemplified by the Constitution Project, to turn on those who were responsible for fighting al-Qaeda at a time when it appeared to be a far more potent threat than it is today.
The project’s report seeks to undo many of the steps taken to fight al-Qaeda, with a majority of its members urging that the U.S. declare formal hostilities with al-Qaeda to be over at the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan–a step that would necessitate closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing or transferring its detainees. If only we could elicit a binding commitment from al-Qaeda to stop fighting us after 2014!
This measure was opposed by a minority of the panel (presumably the Republicans), but the entire group signed on to say “that the United States has violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances”–otherwise known as the “rendition” of terrorist suspects begun under the Clinton administration. By calling the capture of these suspected terrorists “enforced disappearances” the panel seems to be suggesting that U.S. actions are similar to those of the Argentinean junta during its “Dirty War” which left tens of thousands of Argentineans dead.
This is only a small sampling of the problems with the Constitution Project report, which seems to be written as if the terrorist threat is over and we are now in a postwar period. The Boston bombing shows otherwise. I only hope we do not experience even more convincing refutations of our complacency anytime soon.