September 2, 2009 5:00PM

Wednesday Links

  • Cato senior fellow Tom Palmer filing a lawsuit to legally carry firearms in Washington D.C.
  • Podcast: How some on the right-wing are doing everything they can to defend torture. Let's just call them "enhanced justification techniques."
August 27, 2009 4:14PM

The War on Terror Is Over — Spread the News!

Daniel Henninger shares the good news in the Wall Street Journal today: The war on terror is over!

Unfortunately, he appears to bemoan that development. The excesses of the "war on terror" will---regrettably, to him---be reined in by lawyers.

His basic thesis is, very roughly: Lawyers interfere with good things. Lawyers are going to interfere with torture. So torture is a good thing.

This litigation nightmare, together with the chilling effect of the special prosecutor's potential indictments, has as its goal making the price of aggressive interrogation too high under any circumstance, including a one-hour-bomb scenario.

Bring back the Dalkon Shield, asbestos, and torture!

Except that the ticking time-bomb/"one-hour bomb" scenario is never going to happen. It's an interesting ethical thought experiment---and riveting fodder for TV---but not a serious dilemma for our security policy.

I take delight when commentators misuse history or culture to jazz up their writing, and Henninger throws a slow, fat pitch right over the plate: He quotes the famous anti-laywer line from Shakespeare, "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers."

The line was spoken by a criminal to other criminals as they dreamed up a criminals' "chicken in every pot" scenario. This undercuts the idea that we'd be better off without lawyers and the rule of law.

Terrorists are too weak to advance their own unpopular ideologies, so they seek to tear down their opponents'. Henninger's attack on the rule of law in the United States invites exactly what terrorists want us to do.

May 29, 2009 7:47AM

Cheney’s Worldview

Former vice president Richard Cheney gave his big address on national security (pdf) over at AEI last week.   He covered a lot of ground, but this passage, I think, tells us quite a bit about Cheney's worldview:

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.  And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don't stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.  Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted.  In short, they see weakness and opportunity.

So we shouldn't let the terrorists see us get "caught up in arguments" about  the wisdom of our foreign policy, about whether our country should go to war, about our country's treaty obligations, about the parameters of government power under our Constitution?  What is this former vice president thinking?

Does it matter if Charles Manson appreciates the fact that he got a trial instead of a summary execution?  No.  It does not matter what's in that twisted head of his.  Same thing with bin Laden.  The American military should make every effort to avoid civilian casualties  even if bin Laden targets civilians.  Similarly,  it does not matter if bin Laden scoffs at the Geneva Convention as a sign of  "weakness."  The former VP does not get it.  It is about us, not the terrorists.

An obsession with the mentality of the enemy (what they see; what they hope for, etc.) can distort  our military and counterterrorism strategy (pdf) as well.  Cheney wants to find out what bin Laden's objective is and then thwart it.  I certainly agree that  gathering intelligence about the enemy is useful, but Cheney seems so obsessed that he wants to thwart al-Qaeda's objectives — even if some pose no threat to the USA, and even if some of al-Qaeda's  objectives are pure folly.  

Read the rest of this post »
May 21, 2009 5:10PM

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.

Read the rest of this post »
May 15, 2009 11:22AM

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.

May 13, 2009 4:01PM

Former FBI Agent: Torture Sucks. Don’t Do It.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings produced an ugly picture of the role torture played in interrogating Al Qaeda leaders. The testimony of former FBI agent Ali Soufan shows how traditional intelligence techniques worked on Abu Zubaydah and "enhanced" techniques did nothing to advance national security interests:

Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location. We were both very familiar with Abu Zubaydah and have successfully interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence.

We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM's role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.)

Soufan then recounts a tug-of-war between the interrogators and the contractors brought in to apply the third degree. The intelligence and law enforcement professionals struggled to reestablish rapport with Zubaydah after each iteration of harsh interrogation tactics.

The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.

We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were not only inferior to traditional interrogation techniques, they proved counterproductive. The use of illegal techniques resurrected the "wall" between the CIA and the FBI with regard to these detainees. This prevented FBI experts who knew more about Al Qaeda than anyone else in the government from questioning them. Plus, as Soufan recounts, coercive techniques make detainees tell you what you want to hear, whether it is true or not. As Jesse Ventura says, "you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders."

Torture did not advance the work of picking apart Al Qaeda, it disrupted it.

May 4, 2009 12:47PM

Torture? No.

Charles Krauthammer's recent column tells us that the wisdom of torture is undeniable. According to Krauthammer, there are two situations where torture is justified: the ticking time bomb scenario and when we capture high-ranking terrorists and conclude that giving them the third degree may save lives. Furthermore, it would be "imprudent" for anyone who would not use torture to be named the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), the military organization in charge of American forces in the Middle East.

The generals who have been in charge of CENTCOM and other national security officials disagree.

Here is a video of General Petraeus, current commander of Central Command, saying that American forces cannot resort to torturing prisoners:

The open letter Petraeus mentions in the video is available here. He admonishes our troops to treat prisoners humanely. "Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemies."

Former CENTCOM commanders Anthony Zinni and Joseph Hoar don't endorse torture either, evidenced by their open letter (along with dozens of other former general officers) to Congress asking that the CIA abide by the Army interrogation manual.

Hoar and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak wrote separately to denounce torture:

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb.

So, once we sign off on the ticking time bomb scenario, the rationalization spreads to whenever we think it may save lives.  Sound familiar?

These former commanders are not alone.  Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, also had some words on the subject. "We can never retake the moral high ground when we claim the right to do unto others that which we would vehemently condemn if done to us."

Malcolm Nance, former head of the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape course (where sailors are trained in resisting interrogation techniques, including waterboarding), seems to know a thing or two about the topic. "I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people." He roundly denounces the use of waterboarding as wrong, ineffective, and counterproductive.  Just for the record, water actually enters the lungs of a waterboarding victim.  This is not simulated drowning, but controlled drowning. Read the whole thing.

Krauthammer's column gives the impression that all national security experts support making torture our national policy. Wrong.