April 22, 2009

Did the NY Times bury an "inconvenient" torture memo story? And a torture question ...

Newsbusters' Clay Waters reports on how the print edition of the Times spiked a story (that made it onto the Times' online version) about how the past administration's harsh interrogation tactics yielded "high value" information:

President Obama's national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Admiral Blair's assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past," he wrote, "but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given."

The Times's excuse for not including this bit in the hard copy version of the paper? "We already had three stories on this subject," [Editor Richard] Stevenson explained, "and it was late, there was no more space to do this separately...We just didn't have the space to put it in the print newspaper."

But of course!

But back to the memos: It was also revealed that the harsh interrogations helped prevent a planned attack on Los Angeles. So let me ask you -- if this was indeed the case, and the US -- meaning the CIA, NSA, Dick Cheney, George Bush or whoever -- did not make use of such interrogation tactics, and such an attack proceeded ... and led to a 9/11-style attack with similar number of dead/billions of dollars in damage ... would all these people then be guilty of negligence with regards to national security?

This is the question you must ask yourself.

Delaware Libertarian's Steve Newton says "I don't really care who says this. It's outrageous and inexcusable." I value Steve's opinions highly (because not only is he DE's best blogger, he's also the most intellectually honest and consistent), and this one is no different for me. But I've asked this before and I'll ask it again: Do we let such at attack transpire ... so we can "hold our heads high" and proclaim how civilized we are ... that we didn't harshly treat a person who'd gladly cut your kid's head off in a micro-second given the chance?

If Barack Obama goes through and prosecutes Bush administration officials (well, he won't -- he "conveniently" left that decision up to his attorney general, Eric Holder) for illegal actions, then of course we must look to the behavior of our past chief executives -- and their own actions in time of war. I hate to sound like a broken record, but two of the most venerated presidents of all-time, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, committed some of the blatantly illegal actions during wartime in the history of the Republic. Lincoln's actions were to save the Union. FDR's actions were more like George Bush's -- they were for national security and to save American lives.

I think Jonah Goldberg makes a very good point today (which arguing with a fellow Corner-ite) with this (my emphasis):

... why does the [torture] question have to boil down to a yes or no question? Couldnít a third option be that this merely proves such methods should be kept secret, not that they shouldnít be used? (Again, we are excluding the issue of morality for the moment and assuming some lawful supervision.)

I keep hearing that all of these other countries donít ďtorture.Ē Iím sure thatís true of some, but Iím not so sure about others. Perhaps some of these countries are just a lot better at keeping these things under wraps?

Similarly, I donít know that what America did from 2002 to 2006 is the sharp break with the past that you assume it to be (you call it an ďoverturning [of] what has been an important element of American identity for so many years and through so many conflicts.Ē). Would the boys from the OSS really be stunned by what we did to KSM? Did the CIA really take a much higher road throughout the Cold War, including in Vietnam? Or were we just a lot better at keeping our dirty laundry out of the public eye? Perhaps the press was less eager to expose American national-security secrets?

Goldberg also argues against the case that the actions of a few CIA operatives in defense of the security of the country corrupt the entire society. In that, he invokes what I mentioned above -- namely Abe Lincoln's Union Army: For instance, letís take it as a given that some horrible things were done by Union soldiers in the Civil War. What, exactly, does that say about the Northern states and their cause?

I'm like Goldberg in that I'm certainly not advocating torture (or even its very close equivalents). However, if what the Bush-era CIA did was a crime, I am of the opinion that it would be a greater crime if our clandestine operatives had good intelligence that something like 9/11 (or worse) was going to happen, but didn't do everything they could to prevent it. Especially to an illegal/unlawful combatant beheading-loving terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Posted by Hube at April 22, 2009 05:44 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

One note: your link about preventing a San Fran attack didn't actually say that, that I could find; did you use the right link?

Forget the moral issue for a second, and concentrate on the technicals. I have a high suspicion of the memos suggesting the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques as referenced here because we really are not told enough to make a reasoned judgment as to whether the information was revelatory, confirming, supporting, or what. We have no idea at what level the supposed San Francisco attack had been planned or even that it was a feasible working plan. And we have reached the point where I don't trust most of these government sources to tell us.

It is decidedly unilikely that a month of waterboarding a suspect produced actionable intelligence; background info, possibly, by actionable tactical intel--unfortunately, the collection and analysis game doesn't work that way except on TV and in spy novels.

Let's put it this way if you like doing hypotheticals:

If I knew for sure that I could avoid an attempted attack on Washington DC by slaughtering an orphanage full of Afghan children to make a suspect talk, would I be justified?

Not parallel, you say? Well, there is evidence emerging that we used "harsh interrogation methods" on children aged as young as seven and nine.

Tell you what, let's start the conversation from the other end, Hube: tell me where you would draw the line. Name two practices that you would not consider morally justified under any conditions, and let's see if we can work back from there toward common ground.

Posted by: steve Newton at April 22, 2009 06:35 PM

Steve: It's LA, not San Fran, and the reference is to the right of the pic of Chuck Todd.

"If I knew for sure that I could avoid an attempted attack on Washington DC by slaughtering an orphanage full of Afghan children to make a suspect talk, would I be justified?"

Unfortunately, my Machivallian side says: 1) If it's a nuke attack, then "yes." If it's something like a potential 9/11, then I'm not certain. But since 1) such a nuke attack is improbable, then 2) therefore I don't see any reason to "trade" one for another.

As to your last point, I cannot say w/o knowing the conditions, Steve. And from what I've seen/read, that's how the CIA operated. If one outright comes out and says "I wouldn't do this under ANY conditions," then ultimately that is the path to suicide. And, as the saying goes, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

Why does Bush get singled out for rough treatment of outright terrorists, but not FDR for the firebombing of Dresden -- where at least then we were battling a unformed, known foe? Or Truman w/the A-bombs, same deal? Bush roughed up a few guys whose only reason for existence is to kill innocent people. FDR and Truman killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

It seems to me that what Bush did is magnitudes less severe.

Posted by: Hube at April 22, 2009 07:25 PM

Your interface is killing me--I wrote a five paragraph answer and it ate my homework and I didn't save. :(

Tell you what: I'll reply on my site in a day or so.

Posted by: steve Newton at April 22, 2009 09:12 PM