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Emasculating American Intelligence

Andrew Sullivan, a writer for whom I once had great respect but whose work I long ago ceased following, throws his usual fit over my recent item on how the CIA is being reshackled in the war on terror. He claims that my reference to “aggressive interrogation of captured terrorists” is “The Latest Euphemism From the Torture Party” and challenges me to defend these interrogation practices in plain English.

All I can say is that I am not offended by the authorized techniques laid out in the CIA inspector general’s report—techniques such as sleep deprivation, shackling, and on a few occasions waterboarding, all of it carefully supervised by medical personnel so as not to cause physical harm. I might add that the CIA techniques were very different from the gross abuses at Abu Ghraib. Notwithstanding Andrew’s unsupported claim that Abu Ghraib was “one of the test-sites for Cheney’s methods,” the actions there were carried out by a few wayward, low-level military personnel at this facility in Iraq and had no connection to the CIA’s high-level interrogation efforts, as numerous reports have shown.

(That is a different question from whether General Rick Sanchez, General John Abizaid, Secretary Don Rumsfeld, and other senior officials should have been disciplined for the failures at Abu Ghraib and in Iraq in general. I believe they should have been and wrote at the time in favor of Rumsfeld’s resignation, even thought there is not a whit of evidence that he, much less Vice President Cheney, authorized the techniques employed at Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld was guilty of negligence and lack of resourcing—not of ordering prisoner abuse.)

Were the CIA methods even “torture”? Perhaps, but a far milder sort of torture than that word usually suggests, with its connotations of fingernails pulled, electrodes attached to genitals, and suspects beaten to a pulp. Even the more restrained measures employed by the CIA are and were seen to be exceptional—to be used only on hard-core terrorists with information that we desperately had to get to save lives. Andrew claims “there is no evidence, as Bush DHS official Frances Townsend and every neutral observer has noted, that the intelligence, if accurate, could not have been achieved by legal, American and ethical means.” Equally, there is no evidence that it could have been obtained by the standard police interrogation techniques, complete with Miranda warnings. All we do know for sure is that, as the CIA inspector general found, Khalid Sheik Mohammed wasn’t saying anything useful before he was waterboarded, but afterward he provided vital intelligence used to break up numerous plots. Perhaps that information could have been obtained by other techniques, but that’s an unsupported foray into “alternative history.” And if intelligence officers had relied on these methods after 9/11, they would have been taking risks with the public welfare that few would have supported—including Andrew back in his more hawkish days.

Andrew ends his tour de force of hyperventilation with what he imagines is a clever swipe at those of us who greatly admire Ronald Reagan:

As for “Carter-style emasculation,” let us also remember that the return to ethical, legal treatment of prisoners is just as easily described as “Reagan-style emasculation.” It was Reagan who signed the UN Convention on Torture which these neocons have torn up and despise. It is his legacy of American support for human rights that they reject. Indeed it is every president before Bush that they describe as emasculating US defense, because no president until Bush authorized and enforced torture and abuse of war prisoners as a national policy.

You want a “Reagan-style emasculation” of American intelligence? Support Obama.

I hate to break the news to Andrew, but the war on terrorism under Reagan was a total bust. With Iranian support, Hezbollah killed and kidnapped numerous Americans in Lebanon—and in return, we secretly sold missiles to Iran. For details, you can see Bob Baer’s memoir, See No Evil. Baer recounts that as a hard-charging CIA operative, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was constantly shackled by his superiors (the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations), who weren’t willing to take, well, aggressive actions against terrorists. We know where that led. After 9/11, thankfully, the shackles came off and steps such as targeted killings and aggressive interrogations were allowed. The result: no more 9/11s. My fear is that we are now going back to the pre-9/11 status quo, one for which, in all fairness, we should blame not only Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton but also Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The point isn’t just whether certain interrogation techniques are allowed or not. The real problem—and one that Andrew totally fails to address—is the demoralization reportedly setting in among the ranks of intelligence officers because they are now being investigated by the Justice Department for doing what a previous administration told them to do. This is the real flashback to the 1970s—the era of the Church Committee and of Admiral Stansfield Turner’s mass firings of CIA officers. In belaboring his obsessions about “torture,” Andrew misses the bigger picture.

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