TCS Daily

The Ties That Bind

By Gregory Scoblete - January 4, 2005 12:00 AM

It's beyond dispute at this point that the U.S. has transgressed some serious moral boundaries in its treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How we've arrived at this point was, in some sense, inevitable and it holds a valuable lesson for those clamoring for redress: the government has demonstrated, time and again, a very limited ability to act in a calibrated manner. The bold demands of public opinion filtered (and often distorted) by political and media pressure almost always lead to foreseeable counter-disasters down the road. It's an old law, that of unintended consequences; we swing pendulum-like between extremes -- driven almost always by the hysteria (righteous or not) of the moment.

After the terror attacks of September 11th there was a near universal consensus that U.S. intelligence collecting methods needed to improve and that the moral and legal restraints governing our conduct were too oppressive in the face of an enemy that put paid to any arguments for moral restraint. Recall the December 2001 cover from the Atlantic Monthly wondering aloud whether we should torture prisoners to pry valuable information from them.

This was, in other words, not a fringe argument made by intellectual outliers but a subject grappled with in all levels of the culture and government. The use of torture on detainees was debated in public and, while the public was justifiably leery, the practice is not without fairly significant support. Here's a Fox Opinion poll from March of last year:

Do you favor or oppose allowing the government to use any means necessary, including physical torture, to obtain information from prisoners that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks?*




(Not sure)

11-12 Mar 03





11-12 Mar 02*





*asked as "would protect the United States"

A more recent ABC News poll shows far less enthusiasm for harsh interrogation techniques. Nonetheless, it was not without good reason that the Bush Administration countenanced the use of harsher interrogation methods. The U.S. is involved in an expansive, lethal struggle with a committed foe that has already demonstrated a capacity to kills thousands of its citizens both at home and abroad, not to mention wreaking enormous economic damage, and a stated intent to escalate the carnage with more powerful weapons.

While the Islamic terror network makes use of sophisticated technologies, an equal and perhaps greater cache of knowledge resides in the minds of the conspirators -- particularly as you move up the leadership food chain. The New York Times recently reported that bin Laden has eschewed nearly all electronic communications in favor of human couriers relaying written messages.

Before the Church Committee on intelligence reform there was a justified sense that things had spiraled out of control (political assassinations, government toppling, etc.) and that our intelligence agencies had to be reigned in. So what happened? The reigning-in was over zealous, our intelligence capabilities were enfeebled and culture of bureaucratic risk aversion sunk in. We were left chasing low-tech Islamic militia men with satellites and squelching potential offensive action over the absurd fears that a stray piece of shrapnel would hit an inanimate object. We were blind-sided by the worst terrorist massacre on American soil in history.

The necessity for robust interrogation, therefore, was self evident. But the relaxation of the rules, presaged by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez's now infamous memo legitimating some harsher forms of interrogation, led to genital electrocution and deadly beatings. Unintended? Most certainly. Unexpected? Hardly.

In the not-too-distant future, if not already, we will face another intelligence backlash fueled both by legitimate outrage over U.S. behavior and by the parasitic carping of wide consortium of voices looking to constrain America's freedom of action. While the latter may be ignored or argued away, the former cannot and should not be ignored. If we are to avoid another Church-like retreat into bureaucratic immobility, the President will have to get out ahead of this issue (some would argue that, after Abu Ghraib, he's already far behind). Bush needs to walk a nearly impossibly fine line: ensuring an end to abuse while retaining an interrogation policy that acknowledges the realities of a dangerous world.

This is, undoubtedly, a thorny situation. The U.S. could enunciate a policy on interrogations that both adheres to our fundamental moral principles yet acknowledges the reality that unconventional combatants in our care must be placed in some discomfort if they are to be effectively debriefed. Yet, if we spell out too clearly what will and what won't be tolerated in interrogations, our enemies will know just what they have to endure and will likely be able to resist divulging anything useful.

On the other hand, secrecy and poorly delineated rules breeds unaccountable behavior and emboldens the government to overstep into what it only later learns is publicly unacceptable terrain. Rougher tactics will inevitably be exposed, and this exposure will do serious harm to America's moral standing in the world, impairing our ability to chastise regimes from Kazakhstan to Cairo.

In this, as in the Intelligence Reform bill urged on by 9-11 Commission, getting ahead of what will inevitably be a rising-tide of outrage should be an immediate concern for the President. Absent swift action on interrogation policy, President Bush will find himself bereft of good options and forced into bad ones.



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