Tag: cia

Cheney vs. Obama: Tale of the Tape

In case you missed it, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke separately today on terrorism and national security. Like two boxers at a pre-fight press conference, they each touted their strength over their opponent. They espoused deep differences in their views on national counterterrorism strategy.

The Thrilla in Manilla it ain’t. As Gene Healy has pointed out, they agree on a lot more than they admit to. Harvard Law professor and former Bush Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith makes the same point at the New Republic. Glenn Greenwald made a similar observation.

However, the areas where they differ are important: torture, closing Guantanamo, criminal prosecution, and messaging. In these key areas, Obama edges out Cheney.

Torture

Cheney:

I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

Obama:

I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.

Torture is incompatible with our values and our national security interests. When we break our own rules (read: laws) against torture, we erode everyone’s faith that America is the good guy in this global fight.

Torture has been embraced by politicians, but the people who are fighting terrorists on the ground want none of it. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan made clear in Senate hearings last week, it is not an effective interrogation technique. Senior military leaders such as General Petraeus, former CENTCOM commanders Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak all denounce the use of torture.

If we captured Al Qaeda operatives who had tortured one of our soldiers in pursuit of information, we would be prosecuting them. Torture is no different and no more justifiable because we are doing it.

Closing Guantanamo

Cheney:

I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.

Obama:

[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

This is an area where Cheney is disagreeing not just with Obama but with John McCain. We would be having this debate regardless of who won the last Presidential election. Get over it.

The current political climate gives you the impression that we are going to let detainees loose in the Midwest with bus fare and a gift certificate for a free gun at the local sporting goods store. Let’s be realistic about this.

We held hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war in America during World War II. The detainees we have now are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, and federal supermax prisons hold the same perfect record of keeping prisoners inside their walls as the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Criminal Prosecution

Obama basically said that we will try those we can, release those who we believe pose no future threat, and detain those that fit in neither of the first two categories. That’s not a change in policy and that pesky third category isn’t going away.

Obama and Cheney do have some sharp differences as to the reach of war powers versus criminal prosecution.

Cheney:

And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there.

Obama:

Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee - al-Marri - in federal court after years of legal confusion. We are preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District of New York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - bombings that killed over 200 people.

I have written extensively on al-Marri, the last person to be detained domestically as an enemy combatant. The FBI did everything right when it investigated and indicted this Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student, only to have the Bush administration remove those charges in order to preserve the possibility of detaining domestic criminals under wartime powers. This claim of governmental power is a perversion of executive authority that Obama was right to repudiate.

The man being indicted in New York is Ahmed Gailani. If he is convicted for his role in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he will join his co-conspirators Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Mohammed in a supermax.

This is also where we hold 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”), Mohammed Salameh, Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj.

Not to mention would-be trans-pacific airline bombers Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad.

Al Qaeda operatives Mohammed Jabarah, Jose Padilla, and Abu Ali will share his mailing address.

Let’s not forget American Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Hamas financier Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, Oregon terrorist training camp organizer Ernest James Ujaama, and would-be Millenium Bomber Ahmed Ressam.

That’s a lot of bad guys. It’s almost like we’re checking names off a list or something.

Messaging

Cheney:

Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated.

Obama: no quote is necessary here. The differences in narrative between Obama and Cheney are clear and woven into what Obama says.

Terrorism is about messaging. America finds herself in the unenviable position of fighting an international terrorist group, Al Qaeda, that is trying to convince local insurgents to join its cause. Calling this a “War on Terror” can create a war on everybody if we use large-scale military solutions for intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic problems.

We have to tie every use of force or governmental power to a message: drop leaflets whenever we drop a bomb, hold a press conference whenever we conduct a raid, and publish a court decision whenever we detain someone. Giving the enemy the initiative in messaging gives them the initiative in the big picture.

Conclusion

Once we get past the rhetoric, the differences are few but worth noting. I take Obama in the third round by TKO.

Politicians in Thrall to Terrorism

Doug Bandow aptly finds the debate about Guantanamo detainees surreal. For my part, I see it as an exhibition of politicians put “on tilt” – and unwittingly executing the terrorism strategy.

The leadership of both parties appears not to understand that terrorism is designed to elicit self-injurious overreaction. Fear-mongering is a cog in the overreaction machine.

If they did understand this, they would see it as both a civic duty and politically rewarding leadership to exhibit bravery. Messages of indomitability and calm are the appropriate strategic response to terrorism.

Instead, what we have is a bidding war about who can be the most fearful of Guantanamo detainees – a group that is well under control itself and whose transportation and housing in U.S. prisons is entirely manageable.

Both parties are playing to a “base” of caterwauling Islamophobes while the bulk of the American public looks on bewildered and disappointed. Meanwhile, people around the world see that terrorism is a great way to express opposition to U.S. power and U.S. policies. Oops.

Obama’s Military Commissions

President Obama is expected to announce how his administration is going to prosecute prisoners for war crimes and perhaps other terrorist offenses.  Instead of civilian court, courts-martial, or new “national security courts,” Obama has apparently decided to embrace George W. Bush’s system of special military tribunals, but with some “modifications.”

Glenn Greenwald slams Obama for seeking to create a “gentler” tribunal system and urges liberals to hold Obama to the same standards that were applied to Bush:

What makes military commissions so pernicious is that they signal that anytime the government wants to imprison people but can’t obtain convictions under our normal system of justice, we’ll just create a brand new system that diminishes due process just enough to ensure that the government wins.  It tells the world that we don’t trust our own justice system, that we’re willing to use sham trials to imprison people for life or even execute them, and that what Bush did in perverting American justice was not fundamentally or radically wrong, but just was in need of a little tweaking.  Along with warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, extreme secrecy doctrines, concealment of torture evidence, rendition, and blocking judicial review of executive lawbreaking, one can now add Bush’s military commission system, albeit in modified form, to the growing list of despised Bush Terrorism policies that are now policies of Barack Obama.

Greenwald is right.  The primary issue is not due process.  The tribunals might ultimately be “fair” and “unbiased” in some broad sense, but where in the Constitution does it say that the president (or Congress) can create a newfangled court system to prosecute, incarcerate, and execute prisoners?

For more about how Bush’s prisoner policies ought to be ravamped, see my chapter “Civil Liberties and Terrorism” (pdf) in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

The Jurisprudence of Detention: Definitions and Cases

Almost a year has passed since the Supreme Court’s decision to extend habeas rights to Guantanamo in Boumediene. Detention policy is currently under review by interagency task forces; it is worth looking at what the developing body of detention rulings say about the future of detention.

Taking prisoners is an unavoidable part of military action. Telling our troops that they can engage identified enemies with lethal force but cannot detain them puts them in an impossible position.

But who can we hold? The Taliban foot soldier is an easy case, but as we move away from the battlefield things get a little fuzzy. A chronological review of the decisions regarding detainee status gives some insight.

Salim Hamdan

The first case comes from the military commissions convened in Guantanamo. Though it predates Boumediene, it puts the question of who is an unlawful enemy combatant in front of a judge.

Salim Hamdan was the petitioner in the Supreme Court case that invalidated military commissions established by executive order. Congress responded to his victory at the Supreme Court with the Military Commissions Act (MCA) to establish legislatively-sanctioned commissions, but their jurisdiction is limited to “alien unlawful enemy combatants.”

Following the passage of the MCA, Hamdan’s defense counsel filed a motion for an additional hearing to determine whether he was a lawful or unlawful combatant. If he was a lawful combatant, then the commission would lack jurisdiction and he might then be prosecuted in a court-martial. Lawful combatants (i) have a commander, (ii) wear uniforms or a distinctive symbol, (iii) bear their arms openly, and (iv) follow the laws of land warfare.

Captain Allred, the officer presiding, granted the defense motion.

Allred found that Hamdan’s service to Al Qaeda as Osama Bin Laden’s driver and occasional bodyguard, pledge of bayat (allegiance) to Bin Laden, training in a terrorist camp, and transport of weapons for Al Qaeda and affiliated forces supported finding him an enemy combatant. Hamdan was captured at a roadblock with two surface-to-air missiles in the back of his vehicle. The Taliban had no air force; the only planes in the sky were American. Hamdan was driving toward Kandahar, where Taliban and American forces were engaged in a major battle. The officer that took Hamdan into custody took pictures of the missiles in Hamdan’s vehicle before destroying them.

Hamdan’s past association with the Ansars (supporters), a regularized fighting unit under the Taliban, did not make him a lawful combatant. Though the Ansars wore uniforms and bore their arms openly, Hamdan was taken into custody in civilian clothes and had no distinctive uniform or insignia.

Based on his “direct participation in hostilities” and lack of actions to make him a lawful combatant, Captain Allred found that Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant.

Decisions Under the Enemy Combatant Definition

Following Boumediene, detainees have had their cases heard by federal judges. The District Court for the District of Columbia adopted and applied the following definition, and the government need only prove it by a preponderance of the evidence:

An “enemy combatant” is an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.

District Judge Richard J. Leon moved through these cases quicker than his colleagues and gives us several decisions to look at.

Lakhdar Boumediene, et al.: Five ordered released, one detained. This is the set of six petitioners that won the right to habeas corpus hearings at the Supreme Court. They were picked up in Bosnia and allegedly planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight against American forces. Judge Leon ordered five of the six released because the word of an unnamed informant was simply not enough to justify their detention. Since the evidence was insufficient to determine that a plan to travel to Afghanistan existed, Judge Leon did not reach the question of whether such a plan would constitute “support.” Leon found that the sixth man, Belkalem Bansayah, was an enemy combatant based on corroborating sources and evidence that he was adept in using false passports in multiple fake names and was facilitating the travel of others to fight in Afghanistan. This constituted “support” necessary to find him an enemy combatant.

Hisham Sliti: One detained.  Sliti is a Tunisian who traveled from London to Afghanistan on a false passport. He was detained in 2000 by Pakistani authorities because of his false passport and had an address book with contact information for radical extremists. He escaped back into Afghanistan and was later re-captured fleeing the American military in 2001. Judge Leon found that he had traveled to Afghanistan with the financial support of extremists with well-established ties to Al Qaeda, spent time with Al Qaeda-affiliated radicals, stayed at a guesthouse associated with Al Qaeda that served as barracks for terrorist training camps, and that other guests at the house were instrumental in creating terrorist cells. By his own admission, he knew the location, appearance, and code words used by those attending the nearby training camp.

Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi: One detained. Al Alwi is a Yemeni who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Judge Leon found that al Alwi could remain in custody based on the evidence that he had trained at Al Qaeda camps, stayed at Al Qaeda guesthouses, fought on two fronts with the Taliban, and did not leave Afghanistan until his Taliban unit was bombed on two or three occasions by American aircraft.

Mohammed el Gharani: One ordered released.  El Gharani is a Saudi who went to Pakistan around 2001. The government alleged that he had been a member of an Al Qaeda cell in London, stayed at an Al Qaeda-affiliated guesthouse, and fought American forces at the battle of Tora Bora. Judge Leon did not find these claims credible, as all of them were based on the word of fellow detainees. The government also alleged that he had been a courier for Al Qaeda, but had insufficient evidence to back up this claim.

In the above cases, six detainees have been ordered released and three met the criteria to be classified as “enemy combatants.”

Transition From “Enemy Combatant” to “Substantial Support”

The Obama administration has since dropped the term “enemy combatant” and changed its claim of detention authority:

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.

The first decision under the new definition came down from District Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Yasin Muhammed Basardh: One ordered released. Basardh is a Yemeni who was arrested in early 2002 and transported to Guantanamo Bay. He cooperated with detention authorities, giving information about his fellow detainees. As a result, other detainees physically assaulted him and threatened to kill him. Judge Huvelle determined that widespread disclosure of Basardh’s cooperation with the government renders his prospects for rejoining terrorists “at best, a remote possibility.”

Judicial Review of the Authority to Detain

The definitions of “enemy combatant” and the power claimed by the Obama administration are very similar, and the addition of “substantially” is probably only going to affect marginal cases.

A recent review of the revised claim of detention power broadly approved the government’s power of detention. District Judge Reggie B. Walton accepted, in a slightly modified form, the general power of the government to detain those who have participated in hostilities. In doing so, he rejected a detainee’s claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11 did not allow military detention and that detainees must be tried in a civilian court or released.

Judge Walton adopted the following definition for detention decisions:

[I]n addition to the authority conferred upon him by the plain language of the AUMF, the President has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, provided that the terms “substantially supported” and “part of” are interpreted to encompass only individuals who were members of the enemy organization’s armed forces, as that term is intended under the laws of war, at the time of their capture.

Judge Walton did limit the government’s detention authority to those part of the “command structure” of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This precludes detaining “[s]ympathizers, propagandists, and financiers” that may be part of enemy organizations in an abstract sense but who are not part of the organizations’ command structure. Judge Walton also did not resolve the issue of organizations and individuals “associated” with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Though Judge Walton rejected the petitioners’ “direct participation in hostilities” standard for detention in favor of the government’s “substantial support” standard, he explicitly authorized detention of an Al Qaeda “member tasked with housing, feeding, or transporting” members of the organization. An Al Qaeda cook who trained at a terrorist camp can be detained just as “his comrade guarding the camp entrance.”

The competing definitions can often arrive at the same conclusion. Captain Allred determined that Salim Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant for a combination of the “substantial support” activities under the “direct participation in hostilities” standard.

Conclusion

The cases above illustrate that the general principles of detention have not changed significantly with adjusted definitions. The terms “enemy combatant,” “direct participation in hostilities,” and “substantial support” will be interpreted by judges on a case-by-case basis much like a finding of probable cause to issue a warrant or justify a search.

Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Record on Foreign Policy

Cato foreign policy experts weigh in on President Obama’s record in his first 100 days:

Christopher Preble, Director Foreign Policy Studies:

President Obama deserves credit for making a few modest changes in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and he has signaled a desire to make more fundamental shifts in the future. Some of these may prove helpful, while others are likely to encounter problems. In the end, however, so long as the president is unwilling to revisit some of the core assumptions that have guided U.S grand strategy for nearly two decades – chief among these the conceit that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation, and that we must take the lead in resolving all the world’s problems – then he will be unable to effect the broad changes that are truly needed.

Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President Defense & Foreign Policy Studies; Christopher Preble:

On the plus side, Obama moved quickly to fulfill his most important foreign policy promise: ending the war in Iraq. That said, the policy that his administration will implement is consistent with the agreement that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis. Given that the war has undermined U.S. security interests, and our continuing presence there is costly and counterproductive, Obama should have proposed to remove U.S. troops on a faster timetable.

Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst:

The jury is still out on the other major, ongoing military operation, the war in Afghanistan. That mission is directly related to events in neighboring Pakistan, which is serving – and has served – as a safe haven for Taliban supporters for years. President Obama deserves credit for approaching the problem with both countries together, and also in a regional context, which includes Iran, as well as India. Still unknown is the scope and scale of the U.S. commitment. President Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that still more troops are needed, and that these additional troop numbers might prevail for 10-15 years. That would be a mistake. The United States should be looking for ways to increase the capacity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront the extremism in their countries, and should not allow either to grow dependent upon U.S. military and financial support.

Christopher Preble and Ted Galen Carpenter:

On Iran, President Obama made the right decision by agreeing to join the P5 + 1 negotiations, but that is only a first step. The two sides are far apart and President Obama has not signaled his intentions if negotiations fail to produce a definitive breakthrough. Sanctions have had a very uneven track record, and are unlikely to succeed in convincing the Iranians to permanently forego uranium enrichment. If the Iranians are intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons, military action would merely delay Iran ’s program, and would serve in the meantime to rally support for an otherwise unpopular clerical regime, and a manifestly incompetent president.

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow; Christopher Preble:

A related problem is North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, an area where the president and his team seem to be grasping for answers. President Obama was mistaken if he believed that that the UN Security Council would render a meaningful response to Pyongyang’s provocative missile launch. It was naive, at best, for him to believe that even a strong rebuke from the UNSC would have altered Kim Jong Il’s behavior. The president must directly engage China, the only country with any significant influence over Kim. The North’s reckless and unpredictable behavior does not serve Beijing’s interests.

Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow; Christopher Preble:

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are correct to apply greater scrutiny to bloated Pentagon spending, and to terminating unnecessary weapon systems, but the budget will actually grow slightly, at a time when we should be looking for ways to trim spending. If President Obama decided to avoid Iraq-style occupations, we could cut our ground forces in half. If we stopped planning for near-term war with China or Russia, the Air Force and Navy could be much smaller. Unless we commit to a grand strategy of restraint, and encourage other countries to provide for their own defense, it will be impossible to make the large-scale cuts in military spending that are needed.

Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies; Benjamin Friedman; Christopher Preble:

Two other quick points. President Obama has moved away from some of the overheated rhetoric surrounding counterterrorism and homeland security, including dropping the phrase ‘War on Terror”. This was the right approach. The language surrounding the fight against terrorism is as important – if not more important – than the actual fight itself. Equally useful is his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and his renunciation of the use of torture and other illegal means in the first against al Qaeda. These steps send an important message to audiences outside of the United States who cooperation is essential.

Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity; Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Project Coordinator for Latin America.

President Obama has signaled a slight change on US-Cuba policy by softening some travel and financial restrictions. It is not as far as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction – toward greater engagement, as opposed to more isolation, which was the approach adopted by the Bush administration.

For more research, check out Cato’s foreign policy and national security page.

Does Transparency Inspire Terrorism?

The debate over the Obama administration’s release of the torture memos took an important turn during the past week, as reflected in discussions on the Sunday morning shows.

The economy was the lead story on Fox News Sunday, but in the second segment Chris Wallace led his questioning of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as follows:

The Pentagon now says that it’s going to release hundreds of photos of alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel - this, after, of course, the release of the interrogation memos. Senator Bond, how serious is the threat of a backlash in the Middle East and the recruitment of more terrorists, possibly endangering U.S. soldiers in that part of the world?

Revelation! The idea that abusive practices on the part of the United States would draw people to the side of its enemies.

In the media, most of the debate up to now has centered on the tactical question of whether torture works, and to some degree the moral dimension. (Here’s David Rittgers on the former and Chris Preble on the latter.)

There’s an ineluctable conclusion from understanding that torture drives recruitment which endangers our soldiers: It is strategic error to engage in abusive practices. Abuse on the part of the United States adds heads to the hydra.

But wait. Wallace’s question may imply that it is release of the photos - not commission of the underlying offenses - that risks causing a backlash. This cannot be.

Given the governments they’ve long experienced, people in the Muslim and Arab worlds will generally assume the worst from what they know - and assume that even more than what they know is being hidden. Transparency about U.S. abuses cuts against that narrative and confuses the story that the United States is an abuser akin to the governments Arabs and Muslims have known.

Abusive practices create backlash against the United States. Transparency about abuses after the fact will dispel backlash and muddy the terrorist narrative about the United States and its role in the Middle East.

As the question turns to prosecution of wrongdoing by U.S. officials, such as lawyers who warped the law beyond recognition to justify torture, transparent application of the rule of law in this area would further disrupt a terrorist narrative about the United States.

Counterterrorism, Torture, and the Law

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Cong. Peter Hoekstra calls for an investigation into “what the Obama administration may be doing to endanger the security our nation has enjoyed because of interrogations and other antiterrorism measures implemented since Sept. 12, 2001.” Hoekstra implies, or at least clearly believes, that Obama’s renunciation of torture has made the country less safe. Rest assured, when the next attack occurs (and there will be another attack), Hoekstra and other supporters of torture will claim vindication, even though they won’t be able to point to direct evidence that torture would have averted the attack. It is equally impossible to prove a negative – why something does not occur – as it is to prove that an action not taken in the past would have prevented something in the present.

Similarly, former Vice President Cheney claims that the use of techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and cramped confinement enabled the U.S. government to stop future terrorist attacks, and he has asked the Obama administration to declassify the documents that supposedly prove it. Cheney has previously said that President Obama’s renunciation of torture increases the likelihood that future attacks will be successful.

Of course, Cheney has not asked for the declassification of all information obtained by torture. He presumably doesn’t want the American people to know the countless false positives, the fake leads, the purely bogus information offered up by those being tortured in a vain attempt to halt – or merely postpone – their severe discomfort. (Gene Healy documents a few of these in his recent column.)

Nor can Cheney or Hoekstra prove that the few kernels of useful information obtained under torture could only have been acquired under torture, and not by other techniques, techniques that were consistent with our laws, and that we employed in past conflicts. They can’t prove such claims, because they aren’t true.

In the end, however, this is not a question of whether torture works. Appeals to reason fail when people perceive a danger beyond what reason informs. After all, no reasonable person could logically conclude that terrorism poses an existential threat to the Republic, and yet that false belief continues to shape our conduct. We choose not to consider what has worked in the past because we perceive the past to be irrelevant.

That our actions are driven not by logic but by our fears – visceral, instinctual fears – is understandable. Vengeful actions, while not logical, can be justified in certain circumstances. Would the relatives of those killed in Oklahoma City have been justified in publicly stoning Timothy McVeigh? We could have given a rock – or better yet a piece of rubble from the Alfred P. Murah building – to one family member of each of those killed. The parents of the children killed in the day care center might have been handed particularly large chunks of concrete. Or perhaps the families of the 87 people killed in the Happy Land social club should have been allowed to burn alive Julio Gonzalez, the unemployed Cuban refugee who set the fire? And if we handed a machete to Mariane Pearl – or to Adam Daniel, the son Daniel Pearl never knew – and watched them chop off Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s head, no one would shed a tear. We might even call it justice.

That we do not resort to such tactics is one of the things that separate us from animals.

In the animal kingdom, might makes right. If the lion can catch the antelope, no higher authority can stop it from devouring his prey. No moral code teaches the lion that he should eat grass instead.

A conscience is not the only thing that separates us from the animals. When our moral compass fails us, when we are blinded by rage and a thirst for justice, law brings us back, or merely holds us back, from doing what our basest human instincts tell us is right and proper.

Since 9/11, many people have framed these laws as a mark of our weakness. Our enemies are not bound by any code, so why should we be? Lincoln suspended habeus corpus believing it necessary to save the Union. FDR approved the internment of Japanese-Americans on similar grounds. It doesn’t matter that neither measure was actually instrumental to saving the Republic from destruction; indeed, the evidence shows that they had no such effect. All that matters is that these men acted in good faith.

Thus is the torture debate at the center of our evolving concepts of executive power, with one side saying that the president is not above the law, and the other side saying that a president (and, actually, not just the president, but anyone in the executive branch) is immune from such laws when he or she believes them to be an impediment to his ability to carry out his duties. It isn’t exactly Frost/Nixon, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” but it’s close enough.

It is not as high as some people might think, but still forty percent of Americans believe that torture is appropriate in certain circumstances, even though it is clearly against the law. Most of these same people presumably don’t believe that other laws – murder, rape, incest, and human slavery, for example – can be circumvented by presidential fiat. But terrorism is different, so the thinking goes, and fighting it requires us to discard troublesome laws.

The reality is exactly the opposite. Because a central object of terrorism is to induce advanced societies to come loose from their ideological moorings, we must strive even harder to adhere to them. Because terrorists attempt to trick or goad a government founded on certain principles to depart, if only for a moment, from those same principles, our leaders must resist the urge to do so.

On these terms, we haven’t been doing a very good job. We have been circumventing our fundamental principles for seven years, and many Americans think that we should – nay that we must – continue doing it…indefinitely.

It is a sad and sickening spectacle. If we continue down this path – if we cannot call torture for what it is, if we cannot restore an ironclad respect for the rule of law, if we cannot claw back some semblance of separation of powers, with a Congress willing to oppose White House power grabs instead of simply enabling them – then the terrorists will have won.