THE RICH LOWRY COLUMN
By Rich Lowry
If Dick Cheney had a fantasy scenario for how the Bush administration interrogation program worked, it might go like this: A top-level al-Qaida operative is captured, but resists traditional interrogation. He is then waterboarded, after which he becomes an invaluable resource. Eventually, the terrorist conducts tutorials on al-Qaida doctrine and operations for the benefit of American intelligence officers.
Except it’s not a fable. It describes the course of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s post-capture career, according to The Washington Post. The Post report, together with newly released CIA documents, demolishes a key argument of opponents of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques — that “’torture’ never works.“
This contention always betrayed an insecurity. For all their thundering about the criminal immorality of coercive interrogations, opponents never dared admit that they could have elicited important, perhaps lifesaving, information. They treated it as a kind of metaphysical impossibility.
In so doing, they left a hostage to fortune. They had to hope that Cheney was wrong when he said that classified documents proved the effectiveness of the interrogations, and failing that, had to hope the documents would never be declassified. On this front, the release of the 2004 Central Intelligence Agency inspector general report — declassified thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit — has been a disaster for them. In the intelligence business, it’s called blowback.
The IG report said detainees in the interrogation program made the CIA aware of plots to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; to fly hijacked aircraft into Heathrow Airport; to derail a train in the U.S.; to blow up gas stations in the U.S.; to fly an airplane into the tallest building in California; and to collapse bridges in New York. If any of the planned attacks in the U.S. had come off, many of the same critics braying about the CIA’s interrogation program would be outraged about its failure to “connect the dots.”
Overall, according to another newly released CIA document, “detainees in mid-2003 helped us build a list of 70 individuals — many of who we had never heard of before — that al-Qaida deemed suitable for Western operations.“ In the war on terror, learning the identities of these operatives is almost the equivalent of the ULTRA program breaking German codes in World War II.
The former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson tells The Washington Post that “waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information.” Such extreme methods should obviously be used only in a carefully controlled setting against top detainees harboring information about ongoing plots. Detainees like KSM and a few of his confederates, who provided intelligence valuable enough to justify their harsh treatment.
Years of bombast and distortion have nonetheless killed the enhanced-interrogation program. The Obama administration has put the CIA out of the interrogation business and will henceforth endeavor to limit itself to the minimalist methods in the Army Field Manual. Thus it enshrines an interrogation regime that wouldn’t have gotten KSM to cooperate so quickly, if at all. And turns its back on what worked.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.
© 2009 by King Features Synd., Inc.