Archive for August, 2009


August 28, 2009 4:00 AM

No Cause for Shame
Not only were the CIA interrogations effective, they were also moral.

By Marc A. Thiessen

The release this week of the CIA inspector general’s report makes clear that the CIA interrogation program was both lawful and effective in stopping new attacks. But was it moral? I believe that Americans can be comfortable not only with the efficacy but also with the morality of this effort. Here is why. 

The principle at work here is casuistry, in the proper sense of that term. Under casuistry, a just society adheres to certain moral norms. There are times when one finds exceptions to these norms, but the norm remains — and the exception must be justified. For example, the Ten Commandments teach us, unequivocally: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet most of us agree that there are circumstances in which it is both moral and ethical to kill another human being. If a policeman sees a criminal who is about to kill an innocent person, he may use lethal force to stop him. If a foreign enemy threatens your country, it is permissible to go to war to defend it against such aggression. The norm — killing human beings is wrong — remains. But in some circumstances, killing — indeed, organized killing by the state — is morally and ethically permissible. 

If this principle is true when it comes to taking a human life, why would it be any less true when it comes to interrogating captured terrorists? Most of us would agree that waterboarding a criminal suspect in order to get a confession would be immoral. But if you have a terrorist in your custody who has already killed 3,000 people, and who acknowledges that he has plans to kill thousands more but refuses to tell you what those plans are, it is morally licit to use coercive interrogation to get the information needed to protect society. 

Some disagree with casuistry and take an absolutist position on these moral questions. When it comes to matters of war and peace, we call such people pacifists. The critics of the CIA program are effectively arguing from a position of radical pacifism. Against pacifism stands just-war theory, which argues that society can prosecute war so long as it adheres to certain standards: discrimination and proportionality. 

The CIA interrogation program met the just-war standards. Of the tens of thousands of terrorists captured, we used coercive interrogations on only a small number who had knowledge of imminent attacks. (Only about 30 terrorists had any enhanced techniques applied, and just three were subjected to waterboarding.) We used these techniques only as a last resort, when traditional techniques had failed. We used the least coercive technique necessary to get the information. And we used the techniques for a moral purpose — not to elicit confessions or to punish, but to protect society and save innocent lives. 

It is good that Americans are uncomfortable with the CIA’s interrogation techniques. We should be — just as we should be uncomfortable with going to war. But sometimes war is just and necessary. The same is true for coercive interrogations. The CIA’s actions were effective; they also were moral and just. And we should be grateful to and proud of those who took on the difficult job of employing them. Like our soldiers in battle, they took on unpleasant responsibilities so that we could sleep safely in our beds.

— Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in senior positions in the George W. Bush administration, notably as chief speechwriter for President Bush. He is at work on a book on the CIA interrogation program that will be published by Regnery in 2010.


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Obama Versus the CIA

The agency’s interrogation practices were lawful—and effective.


On Monday the Obama administration released a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report on the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Yesterday, the New York Times reported some gruesome abuses on its front page, above the fold: “Excessive physical force was routinely used, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions, and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years, a federal investigation has found. . . . [D]espite rules allowing force only as a last resort. ‘Staff at the facilities routinely used uncontrolled, unsafe applications of force, departing from generally accepted standards,’ said the report.”


Barack Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta

Actually, these abuses were not committed by the CIA. They were committed by officials at four juvenile residential detention centers in New York state. The details came from a Justice Department report that recounted how “workers forced one boy, who had glared at a staff member, into a sitting position and secured his arms behind his back with such force that his collarbone was broken.”

While officials at the New York state detention facilities failed to report the abuses (“the ombudsman’s office charged with overseeing the youth prison centers had virtually ceased to function,” the Times reported), the CIA inspector general’s report describes a well-run, highly disciplined CIA interrogation program, where clear guidelines were established and abuses or deviations from approved techniques were stopped, reported and addressed.

Indeed, the CIA report makes clear from its first paragraphs that it was those who ran the program who brought abuses to the IG’s attention: “In November 2002, the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) informed the Office of Inspector General (OIG) that . . . he had just learned of and had dispatched a team to investigate [REDACTED]. In January 2003, the DDO informed OIG that he had received allegations that Agency personnel had used unauthorized techniques with a detainee, Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri . . . and requested that OIG investigate.”

Once the IG report was completed, the agency referred it to the Justice Department for review for possible criminal prosecutions. This review was conducted not by Bush political appointees. It was conducted by career prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia. They recommended against prosecutions in all but one case—that of a CIA contractor, not in the official interrogation program, who had beaten a detainee in Afghanistan. (The detainee later died and the contractor was subsequently convicted of assault.)

Now Attorney General Eric Holder, a political appointee, is overruling the decisions of career Justice Department officials and appointing a special prosecutor. If the Bush administration had done the same thing to its predecessor, the mainstream media would be howling.

The decision to prosecute will have a devastating effect on the intelligence community—pushing the agency back into a risk-averse, pre-Sept. 11, 2001, mentality. Indeed, the IG report itself indicates that agency officials knew this day was coming. “One officer expressed concern that one day, Agency officers will wind up on some ‘wanted list’ to appear before the World Court. . . . Another said, ‘Ten years from now, we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this . . . [but] it has to be done.'”

He was right. It had to be done. According to the IG report, “Khalid Sheykh Mohammed, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete.” After undergoing the waterboard, however, KSM became “the most prolific” of the detainees in CIA custody. “He provided information that helped lead to the arrests of terrorists including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, businessmen whom [KSM] planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper operative in New York; and Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States easily and was tasked to research attacks [REDACTED].” Other plots the agency did not know about before KSM and other detainees told them, according to the inspector general, were “plans to [REDACTED]; attack the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; hijack aircraft to fly into Heathrow Airport . . . [and] hijack and fly an airplane into the tallest building in California in a west coast version of the World Trade Center attack. . . .”

The IG report states that it did not uncover evidence these plots were “imminent,” but it also reports that, “Agency senior managers believe that lives have been saved as a result of the capture and interrogation of terrorists who were planning attacks.”

While the focus of the news media has been on the abuses described in the report, the inspector general himself describes these abuses as deviations from approved procedure. The inspector general further concluded that, “The CTC [CIA Counterterrorism Center] did a commendable job in directing the interrogation of high value detainees. . . . Agency personnel—with one notable exception described in this review—followed guidance and procedures and documented their activities well. . . . Numerous agency components and individuals invested immense time and effort to implement the CTC program quickly, effectively, and within the law.”

The bottom line: The CIA’s interrogation practices were lawful, they were necessary, and they were effective. Reading this report, the real crime that comes to light is the Obama administration’s decision to eliminate this capability and prosecute those who stopped the next attack.

Mr. Thiessen served in senior positions in the Pentagon and White House, most recently as chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He is writing a book on the CIA interrogation program to be published by Regnery in 2010.

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Visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; served in senior positions in the Pentagon and White House from 2001 to 2009, most recently as chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush


Since taking office, the Obama administration has prosecuted the CIA in the court of public opinion. Now it is taking its campaign into the court of law. The allegations in the CIA inspector general’s report were reviewed five years ago — not by Bush appointees, but by career prosecutors. Those career prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges (except in one case where a CIA contractor was convicted of assault). Now political appointees in the Obama administration are reversing those decisions, and Attorney General Eric Holder is appointing a special prosecutor who — he promises — will investigate only a small number of officials. But once a special prosecutor is appointed, there is no controlling where the investigation may lead. Such prosecutions will harm our national security — putting the agency on the defensive at a time when we need the CIA to be on the offensive against the terrorists.


There is, however, another indictment hidden in the IG report that has largely escaped notice. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has charged the CIA with lying to Congress, alleging the agency told her that enhanced interrogation techniques were not in use. But the IG report confirms that “in the fall of 2002, the agency briefed the leadership of the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of both standard techniques and EITs” and that the CIA “continued to brief the leadership of the Intelligence Oversight Committees on the use of EITs and detentions in February and March 2003.” Perhaps it is time for Pelosi to finally apologize?

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