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Not-So Great Debate
Torture and the war.


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Michael Ledeen

A week or so back, I criticized the Washington Post for giving a lot of space to an article that basically “outed” a CIA aircraft, and only in passing raised what I took to be the main issue, namely the transportation of captured terrorist suspects to countries where they could be interrogated more vigorously than in the United States. The Post journalist had briefly quoted Michael Scheuer, the recently retired CIA officer who became a best-selling author writing under “Anonymous,” to the effect that the philosophical subleties of this issue would not have disturbed his former employers. They would simply have saluted and done what they were told by the White House.

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I read the Scheuer quotation as a “slam” at CIA for being insufficiently ethical, but I was wrong to draw that inference, and Scheuer has been most helpful in explaining his position and giving me better understanding of the issue. But first, my apologies to Scheuer. I’ll try to be better faster.

Scheuer’s position is in sync with much of what he has written. He is furious with the Clinton White House (notably former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and his buddy at the NSC, Richard Clarke) for giving CIA orders to go after the terrorists without also providing the wherewithal to deal with such terrorists as they might capture. The unfortunately named process of “rendition,” a word the illiterates in the government use to describe the process of turning over terrorists to friendly governments for interrogation, was a CIA solution to a problem created by the Clinton White House. And Scheuer is concerned that his friends and former colleagues at the agency will end up taking the rap that justly should be delivered to the failed policymakers.

He’s right to be concerned, although the Democrats in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body (a.k.a. the Senate of the United States) have other intended victims before they get back to the CIA. The Dems’ intent is to criminalize as much of the Bush war policy as they can, beginning with today’s assault on Alberto Gonzales. In the process, they will speak as if the war on terrorism only began during the Bush years, and that any counterterrorist policy that displeases them was ipso facto a Bush policy.

I doubt anyone in this administration–which, remember, already retreated from its earlier positions on interrogation methods permitted against captured terrorist suspects–is going to point out that the most controversial and ethically questionable method of all was developed during the Clinton administration in direct response to orders that came directly from the White House. “Rendition” was a Clinton creation, and was approved by Clinton’s lawyers, with no apparent cries of pain either from the Justice Department or from anyone in Congressional “oversight” committees. Gonzales might quietly make that point if anyone yells at him. It won’t register with the Democrats, but it might help the public understand the real world a little better.

As usual in the many congressional debates about the war in which we are engaged, the central issues will not be raised at all. Does anyone know which interrogation methods, if any, have proven effective over the past three-plus years? Isn’t that worth knowing? I have long been critical of torture on the grounds that whatever “information” it produces must be highly suspect. A man will say anything to stop the pain, won’t he? So how can we believe what he says? But there are phases of gray in between the blackness of torture and the whiteness of gentle inquiry, and many of the gray methods have been effective. So say experts from, say, the Chicago police force in the glory days, or the British questioners of the IRA over the years, or the Spanish judges who have dealt with ETA, or the Israelis who interrogate Arab terrorists.

I know there are forms of torture that are both disgusting and counterproductive, and they should be rejected. But I’m quite prepared to believe that there are slightly less disgusting yet significantly more productive methods that we should employ.

But don’t expect that subject to be raised in this week’s great debate.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.



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