Sunday Forum: Shame on the press
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When the Obama administration recently declassified Justice Department documents on the interrogation of terrorist suspects, the media wasted no time in labeling them "torture memos."
The documents describe in detail 10 interrogation techniques, including the notorious waterboarding, and how they could be used on high-value terrorists. Downplayed by the press is the fact that the memos were crafted specifically to explain why the techniques were not torture.
So why has the media trotted out every opponent to coercive methods but very few advocates? Why, in both print and TV outlets, from Time Magazine to CNN, are the memos and the methods branded with the loaded term "torture."
Opponents of any form of coercive interrogation focus on the most severe and emotionally charged of the techniques -- waterboarding -- and ignore the reasoning offered in the memos. By ignoring details that might cast the memos in a positive light, the media do a great disservice to the debate and to the safety of Americans.
If we examine the least severe of the 10 techniques described in the memos, the "attention grab," we gain an entirely different perspective. The "attention grab" is aimed at focusing the attention of an uncooperative terrorist by latching onto his collar and shaking him in one quick motion. Similarly, the "facial hold" entails simply placing palms on both cheeks, compelling a terrorist to look into the eyes of the interrogator.
Few Americans would judge these as torture. In fact, many parents have used similar techniques on disobedient children, yet the current administration has abolished these methods under the guise of torture.
Moving further up the continuum we reach somewhat harsher techniques such as a simple slap, or placing a terrorist in cramped quarters. Again, the American people would have little problem employing these methods on Osama Bin Ladin or his underlings.
What about sleep deprivation? Is keeping a terrorist awake 15 minutes past his bedtime objectionable? What about 30 minutes? How about an hour, a few hours, a few days?
Now we are nearing the top of the list: stress positions. Does forcing a terrorist to kneel for 20 minutes constitute torture? What if we make him uncomfortable? Should it require presidential approval?
OK, let's finally discuss the worst of the techniques addressed in the memos: waterboarding. The documents describe in excruciating detail the narrow circumstances in which this technique was permitted -- and it was employed on only three top al-Qaida operatives. The rules even mandated an attending physician to ensure no long-lasting harm. And remember: Our special forces, pilots and Navy SEALs have themselves been waterboarded in training for decades, without adverse affects.
There are few proponents of torture, but coercive interrogations work. Some "experts" argue there is no need for enhanced techniques because we can obtain the same information through rapport-building and other noncoercive methods. But rapport-building requires the luxury of time. Just ask yourself, if you were captured would you betray your comrades because the enemy treated you nicely? Committed jihadists do not betray the cause lightly.
Contrary to the portrayal in irresponsible media, enhanced techniques were used exclusively on hardened terrorists who had resisted noncoercive methods. Enhanced methods are reserved for the worst of the killers, men like Khalid Sheik Mohammed who boasted of sawing off the heads of his victims and taunted interrogators with knowledge of additional 9/11-type plots. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was little time for rapport-building.
A more convincing argument appears deeper in those previously classified documents. Abu Zubaydah, described in the memos as the "third or fourth man in al-Qaida" managed the selection and dispatch of recruits to the Khaldan terror training camp in Afghanistan and instructed recruits on how to resist interrogation. He had studied American and Russian interrogation manuals and had interviewed other terrorists to analyze the most severe methods used by the Russians and Egyptians.
In U.S. custody, Zubaydah laughed off noncoercive methods of questioning and, according to one memo, "Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it' in the face of psychological and physical hardship."
There is some question as to how much Zubaydah himself revealed about al-Qaida operations under rapport-building interrogation methods versus waterboarding, although by one account he gave up significant information after only 34 seconds of waterboarding. But given his own views on the subject and the knowledge that he and his compatriots would have pulled off more 9/11s if given the chance, I believe most Americans would not object to this particular enhanced-interrogation technique.
It is unconscionable to permit our enemies or the media to draw moral equivalence between compelling a terrorist to stay awake for an extra hour and dipping him in boiling oil. We must not confuse, or in any way equate, causing a terrorist discomfort with torture.
In the end, national policy must include the use of certain coercive methods which fall short of torture, which has long been defined as maiming, burning, scarring, breaking bones or amputation. Techniques below the threshold of severe physical pain such as the 10 described in the memos were classified as coercive but not torture.
The Obama administration now has prohibited all of these methods as torture. But there is a reasonable compromise. Our government could support coerced interrogations under clearly expressed and extraordinary circumstances with specific levels of approval. Instead, the press is shaping public opinion by inducing us to think about this issue from one viewpoint rather than another.
Shame on the media for taking sides and reneging on its mandate to inform the people with all perspectives of an issue based on all the facts. More balanced coverage is needed to ensure our ability to gather critical intelligence and to craft policies that make us safer.
First Published May 24, 2009 12:00 am