Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.