Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups live in a shadow world where they plot to kill you and me. If we expect our intelligence professionals to prevent them from succeeding, we must give them the tools required to get the job done.
But in recent days, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have not been providing those tools. They’ve been taking them away. There are rank-and-file Democrats who think this is wrong — but in an election year few have been bold enough to dissent loudly or clearly.
It doesn’t take Jack Bauer to understand: One way to gather useful intelligence on terrorism is by interrogating captured terrorists. Torture is illegal — in all cases without exception. But short of torture are a variety of interrogation techniques that seek to elicit information by inflicting stress and duress; by rewarding cooperation and punishing defiance. Such techniques are aggressive and coercive, to be sure, but they do not necessarily “shock the conscience” — the commonly agreed definition of torture.
Last week, President Bush was presented with a bill that would have prohibited the CIA from utilizing such methods even in cases involving unlawful combatants believed to have knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks. Instead, the bill would have restricted the CIA to the mild interrogation methods authorized for soldiers in the U.S. Army Field Manual — a document terrorists can access, read, and utilize for training purposes.
Bush promptly vetoed the bill, saying it would outlaw techniques that have been used in the past to “prevent a number of attacks.” Among them: assaults against a Marine camp in Djibouti and a U.S. consulate in Pakistan, and plots to fly passenger airplanes into buildings in Los Angeles and London.
The president emphasized that his objection to the bill was “not over any particular interrogation technique; for instance, it is not over waterboarding, which is not part of the current CIA program,” and which the CIA itself banned in 2006 — having acknowledged that it had used the technique rarely, but successfully; for example on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks.
An attempt this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to overturn the president’s veto failed. But Pelosi has continued to block House members from voting on an additional measure — a compromise bill, passed by a bipartisan 68 to 29 majority in the Senate — to restore to American intelligence agencies the authority they formerly had to monitor foreign terrorist suspects abroad without first demonstrating “probable cause” to a judge — a difficult standard to meet since many of those planning terrorism have not yet committed any crime.
The bill also would protect telecommunications companies from being sued for billions of dollars by plaintiffs’ lawyers for the “crime” of having cooperated with American intelligence agencies in the aftermath of 9/11. The telecoms provided data that could be “mined” for clues of coming attacks.
Although quite a few Democrats in the House apparently would support this commonsense legislation, only a few have been willing to let Speaker Pelosi know, in no uncertain terms, that they want to be allowed to cast their votes.
It’s hard to avoid this conclusion: We are living in what John Edwards might call two Americas. In one are those who realize we are fighting a war, and that we’d better fight hard and well because our enemy is dangerous. In the other are those who think the “war” against militant Islamism is a figment of the neo-conservative imagination — hardly worth mentioning.
That’s no exaggeration. Check out the presidential candidates’ websites. On John McCain’s, under “Issues,” you’ll see “National Security,” with a subheading on “Fighting Against Violent Islamic Extremists and Terrorist Tactics,” and prominent mention of “the global war on terrorism” and “threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea.”
Hillary Clinton’s website, by contrast, lists 14 issues. Terrorism, national security, the war against Islamist terrorists, and even foreign policy are conspicuously absent. Instead there is “Restoring America’s Standing in the World.”
Barack Obama’s website shows 25 issues — but, again, national security and militant Islamism do not make the cut. Instead, in a section on “Foreign Policy,” he promises to close the terrorist detention facility in Guantanamo (he does not say where the terrorists now housed there would go), and “lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century: nuclear weapons and terrorism; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease.”
Obama does assert that he will “finish the fight against al-Qaeda.” He does not specify what weapons he will use to get that job done. Apparently, however, he doesn’t believe a robust intelligence-gathering capability need be among them.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.