Politics & Policy

Sound Veto

Since murdering nearly 3,000 Americans on a single day six-and-a-half years ago, al-Qaeda has not ceased plotting new mass-murder attacks against the United States. The terror network’s rigorous training regimen puts a premium on schooling its operatives in counter-interrogation tactics. Defeating those tactics requires keeping jihadists in the dark about the treatment to which they may be subjected if captured. Al-Qaeda’s operational ignorance of our techniques makes our interrogations more effective, leading to intelligence that prevents new atrocities.

These uncontroversial facts make it difficult to understand why congressional Democrats want to hand our enemies the playbook — literally, an actual manual — that details the full menu of U.S. interrogation practices and ensures gentle treatment for captured jihadists. President Bush, to his credit, would rather keep al-Qaeda guessing. That necessity, and not torture or waterboarding, is the reason for the president’s sound veto Saturday of a bill that would have restricted intelligence interrogators to the tactics set forth in the Army Field Manual.

#ad#Democrats and their media allies have predictably trotted out their shopworn torture narrative, declaiming that the president has “cemented his legacy” — the New York Times’s phrase — as a sort of latter-day Marquis de Sade. We suspect that the American people, having benefited from nearly seven years without a reprise of 9/11, are growing weary of this cheap rhetoric.

Waterboarding, or simulated drowning, is rough stuff, but it should not be mistaken for the heinous cruelty that sensible people recognize as genuine torture. We now know that, for all the caterwauling, waterboarding has not been employed in about five years and was used on a grand total of three terrorists, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed among them. These terrorists were the brains behind 9/11 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, in which al-Qaeda killed 17 members of the U.S. Navy. In the crisis conditions that obtained after 9/11, these three top-tier jihadists — unlike the thousands of captives U.S. forces have held during the war — were in a unique position to provide actionable information about additional terror plots then under way.

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Democrats have waved waterboarding like a bloody shirt, but the interrogation debate is actually about two different, distinctly commonsensical points. First, we know that al-Qaeda operatives are trained to resist known questioning methods, so it makes no sense to help them by making our methods literally an open book. Second, the Army Field Manual is designed for the treatment of lawful and honorable combatants, soldiers who comport themselves in accordance with the laws of civilized warfare. Jihadists flout those laws, and it would be absurd to reward their barbarity.

It is uncontested that gentler questioning methods — no slapping, sleep deprivation, temperature variations, loud noises, bright lights, or the like — are to be preferred. When not engaged in mere partisan demogoguery, critics of tougher interrogation methods correctly point out that the most reliable information is derived from those subjects who come to trust and depend upon their interrogators. But that often takes a long time and, with the most hardened terrorists, effective interrogation may not be possible at all without recourse to more robust measures. In a war involving the mass-murder of Amerian civilians, we don’t always have the luxury of time, and the hardened terrorist, the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is the one whose information is the most vital. Our intelligence agencies must have the means to get that information, particularly during an emergency.

#ad#That is why even John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and the nation’s most authoritative voice against torture, encouraged President Bush to veto the interrogation bill. Former president Bill Clinton even went so far as to suggest that it should be lawful for a president to authorize actual torture in a “ticking timebomb” scenario.

There were other flaws in the bill. Congressional Democrats, who have a long, lamentable, and well-documented history of treating presidential appointees shabbily, sought to increase the number of national-security positions subject to Senate confirmation. In this, as in their failure to streamline legislative oversight of federal security agencies, Democrats once again ignored the 9/11 Commission — despite having made so much of the purported moral necessity of enacting the panel’s recommendations. Democrats also sought to saddle the intelligence community with yet another inspector general, notwithstanding the fact that each component agency already has an IG, as does the Office of the National Intelligence Director, whose inspector already has the very same community-wide jurisdiction the bill’s duplicative IG was to exercise. Quite apart from the question of interrogation tactics, the bill merited a veto on these grounds.

We believe history will judge that President Bush made his top priority the protection of the American people against a wily and ruthless enemy. Democrats, on the other hand, are treating our intelligence agencies as though they are the enemy. Whether interrogation or foreign surveillance is at issue, the Democrats’ priority has been to degrade our capacity to collect and connect the dots. Let the Democrats and the New York Times scoff: On the issue of national security, we’ll take President Bush’s legacy.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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