Thursday, April 23, 2009

Politics: How far do you go to protect the nation?

24 is a fictional show.

The show has always asked the question directly and indirectly, how far should one person and one government go to protect its citizens?

We are now watching that issue play out in the real life debate with the recently released memos from the Bush administration that authorized aggressive (some say torture) interrogations of terrorists.

Hugh Hewitt points to this NY Times piece that frames the issue clearly. Excerpt:
For both sides, the political stakes are high, as proposals for a national commission to unravel the interrogation story appear to be gaining momentum. Mr. Obama and his allies need to discredit the techniques he has banned. Otherwise, in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators.

But if a strong case emerges that the Bush administration authorized torture and got nothing but prisoners’ desperate fabrications in return, that will tarnish what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have claimed as their greatest achievement: preventing new attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
Aside from investigating the issues at hand, the raising of the possibility of prosecution of former Bush administration officials may make things even more difficult than they are as discussed in this WSJ piece. Excerpts:
Policy disputes, often bitter, are the stuff of democratic politics. Elections settle those battles, at least for a time, and Mr. Obama's victory in November has given him the right to change policies on interrogations, Guantanamo, or anything on which he can muster enough support. But at least until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements. This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power.
.............
Congress will face questions about what the Members knew and when, especially Nancy Pelosi when she was on the House Intelligence Committee in 2002. The Speaker now says she remembers hearing about waterboarding, though not that it would actually be used. Does anyone believe that? Porter Goss, her GOP counterpart at the time, says he knew exactly what he was hearing and that, if anything, Ms. Pelosi worried the CIA wasn't doing enough to stop another attack. By all means, put her under oath.

Mr. Obama may think he can soar above all of this, but he'll soon learn otherwise. The Beltway's political energy will focus more on the spectacle of revenge, and less on his agenda. The CIA will have its reputation smeared, and its agents second-guessing themselves. And if there is another terror attack against Americans, Mr. Obama will have set himself up for the argument that his campaign against the Bush policies is partly to blame.

Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow.
UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer of the WaPo weighs in on the topic. Excerpt:
Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge.
.......
The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great.
.......
It is one thing to have disagreed at the time and said so. It is utterly contemptible, however, to have been silent then and to rise now "on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009" (the words are Blair's) to excoriate those who kept us safe these harrowing last eight years.
Some people have said, the Allies didn't torture POWs in World War II. True enough. However, the situation is not comparable. The average POW in WWII was a low level foot soldier with little knowledge of the plans of the enemy beyond a small unit level. At the moment, it appears that water-boarding was authorized for very high level prisoners (sounds like only three?) who probably had substantial knowledge of Al-Qaeda. Additionally, these interrogations appeared to have been under strict guidelines and logs kept of the information obtained. Investigations should go forward to find out if guidelines were followed or violated and whether useful information was obtained. If individuals crossed the line then there has to be punishment as in the case of Abu-Ghraib prison. As a matter of national policy, torture should be illegal except under the rarest of circumstances.

UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded as part of a Vanity Fair essay on the topic of torture.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

A posted comment to the WSJ piece for your consideration:
(go to http://forums.wsj.com/viewtopic.php?t=5778&postdays=0&postorder=asc&topic_view=&start=0 and look for the auther jkempsmith for the original posting)

The writers of this "opinion" piece and its predecessor piece "Obama and the CIA" seem to be confusing right and wrong, as well as conflating "appeasing the liberals" with something else, which I will call "respecting the rule of law" as the foundational sine qua non of a truly free and just society.

It is not the case that America, as the historical leader of the free world, has the right to apply "situation ethics" when it finally finds itself on the receiving end of terrorism (like just about every other free nation). But more to the point, tier-1 political powers like America, if they stoop into the gutter in their methods of self-protection when dealing the individuals from other countries, do so at the peril of their own societies.

In saying this, I am fully aware, and recognize that the prevention of, for example, further incidents involving passenger aircraft in the U.S. on the heels of 9/11 (imaging for example, that the interrogations in questions might have prevented something so horrible as this) could have made the difference between an economy which recovered very well from 9/11 and one which spiraled into the abyss, causing much suffering and hardship and certainly the many indirect deaths which always occurs when an economy declines badly.

So how is it perilous to America to stoop into the gutter in its interrogation methods? In many ways.

First, such methods undermine the worldwide credibility of America. They knock America off of the moral high ground which many American dating back centuries fought and died to attain and hold, shoving Lady Liberty's face into the mud at the bottom of the hill. Such methods also send the message to those outside of America that America can't be trusted, and that its "word" may well hide far worse intentions, and may portend far worse deeds.

Such methods also send the dirty message within America, and begin the steady drip-marketing from that message from the highest springs within our government and the hallowed halls of agencies sworn to protect America and all that it means -- the rule of law and all the foundation blocks which must never be moved if that rule of law is to be trusted by the world.

Some Americans seem to believe that if their own lives or assets might be put at risk, there are no tactic which is out of bounds for the American government or agencies to utilize. They don't seem to see that such tactics only serve to poison and deaden the soul which is -- or was -- America.

Today's Americans should recognize what our forefathers did, that in fact, we are no more than trustees of this nation, and that we as individuals and as a group are all temporary in our lives and our tenancy here. As America's trustees we have the duty to not damage the sacred foundations of this country which we were born into or were otherwise embraced by through immigrating here.

Now here's the hard part: There will be times when, to avoid destroying that sacred foundation, we have to accept that America's house and our very selves and families may have to suffer the infliction of terrible injuries by others. We have to take this pain whatever its form, recover from it and rebuild, and do so without ever inflicting or allowing any damage to the sacred foundations which we control as America's people.

Situation ethics are not for Americans.

Absolute Ethics define the America into which I was born, and Absolute Ethics define the condition in which I intend to leave America. This stance is hardly the stance of an appeasement-seeking liberal.

It is the stance of an American whose view of America is much larger than the loss of life, economic fallout and inconvenience of next terrorist incident or economic spiral. It is the stance of an American who believes the pure and sacred foundations of America have much greater value than the life of any individual such as he.

It is the cowards who compromised America's ethics for their own gain and shortsightedly selfish agendas. Torturing a captive in a cell, when the torturer holds all the power and the cards is the province of bully-cowards.

Those who are willing to suffer the risks and consequences of reining in the coward-torturers, including the risks to the lives of the free and innocent and themselves, are the antidote to the poison and resulting diseases brought on by the cowardice and cruelty which took hold in these incidents -- a diseases must now be permanently eradicated from this country.

It takes courage for a super-power and its president to say:

"No, we will not avail ourselves of dirty tricks, even if we can get away with them, and even if they work."

And it takes courage for him to say: "We must hold accountable those members of our very own family who bear responsibility for having allowed America to stray."

It would appear that we have such a president. And that observation is coming from a real conservative.

Rene said...

It is one thing to examine what was done and its another to prosecute. Historically, administrations do not prosecute prior administration officials over policy differences.

It would have been a different situation if a handful of rogue officials decided to do what they did without consultations.

But there were extensive consultations. Thus, if politics is to be eliminated in the Obama administration plans to prosecute, in the interest of complete justice, they will also have to prosecute the "gang of eight" (the top Democrat and Republican in the House and Senate and the ranking Democrat and Republican members in the House and Senate intelligence committees) in Congress who were consulted on the most sensitive national security issues including the torture (enhanced interrogation techniques) decisions.

Clearly, the usage of such euphemisms indicates there is a spectrum of techniques. Any casual viewer of gangster movies or action/thriller movies knows that some things are clearly over the line of torture that these methods would be in that gray borderline. We also need only look at how the real-life terrorists treat their enemies and the civilian populations they cow into silence to see unambiguous examples of torture.

Additionally, intent needs to be considered. Why someone does something matters. A police (and military as in the recent piracy incident) sniper is engaged in a legalized killing. We do not prosecute them because their intent is to prevent the criminal(s) from doing further harm.

The reality is that when 1 person with a bomb can walk into a crowded marketplace and kill a hundred and 19 hijackers can kill thousands, we do ask our law enforcement and military to do some very difficult things that take place with careful consideration to prevent mass killings and woundings which the terrorists gleefully celebrate.

It is too easy for the commentor to sit at the computer and say this ...
"Now here's the hard part: There will be times when, to avoid destroying that sacred foundation, we have to accept that America's house and our very selves and families may have to suffer the infliction of terrible injuries by others. We have to take this pain whatever its form, recover from it and rebuild, and do so without ever inflicting or allowing any damage to the sacred foundations which we control as America's people."

Say this to the 9/11 familes.

Anonymous said...

I take it you personally condone such tortures even if it breaks the law and is morally wrong?

I am all for prosecuting everyone who has broken the law, Republicans and Democrats alike. I don't think we are talking about a mere policy difference here.

Rene said...

A few thoughts ...

First off, hats off to you for being consistent in your position that you would want individuals of both parties prosecuted should it come to that. I disagree with that position but I can respect its equal application.

My impression of those calling for prosecutions are that they are only interested in punishing those who served in the Bush Administration which reveals a reflexive Bush-Cheney hatred and the seeking of political gain.

Second, torture is immoral and illegal. But might there be gradations?

Moral equivalence arguments are often advanced against the USA. However, there is now and were discussions and consultations and limits set by the intelligence community unlike the terrorists who go far beyond anything the intelligence agencies did and they do so without hesitation. The terrorists have committed the greatest evil of killing and maiming innocent people in the name God for the rewards of heaven. The interrogators inflicted mental and physical pain to gain information to prevent further killing and maiming of innocents. The interrogation methods went into the grey zone and may eventually be considered as across the line. Those involved may be ruled guilty but with extenuating circumstances?

Finally, terrible things are done in war and the challenge for a civil society is to fight evil without sinking to the same degree of evil being opposed.

If the choice is not the “purity” of pacifism leading to the peace of the grave or the slave, there will be decisions that go into the grey area (and sometimes crossing the line) and co-operation with unseemly allies (e.g. FDR and Churchill worked uneasily with Stalin to defeat Hitler and in this current war, supporting certain tribal factions within Iraq and Afghanistan).

As a society, we should and do “watch that line” and acknowledge that those guardians of our freedom and safety are faced with incredibly difficult situations and decisions.