The compromise struck Thursday between the White House and Republican Sens. John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham on rules for interrogating terrorists looks like a win for both sides, and for national security in a time of war.
Common sense and an underlying unity of purpose prevailed. McCain and company got the rules they wanted that preserve American adherence to the Geneva Conventions as written and without redefinition. President Bush got the statutory authority to continue a vital CIA program of necessarily coercive interrogation of high-value terrorists; a program we now know has foiled terrorist attacks and saved American lives.
Were the Bush and McCain goals fundamentally at odds? No, and here’s why.
This was never an argument about torture, correctly defined. Torture is prohibited by existing U.S. and international law. The Bush administration and Congress are equally committed to respecting that prohibition. Murder, mutilation, rape, gross bodily injury and inflicting lasting physical and psychological harm are all rightly forbidden.
Rather, this was a dispute about whether the CIA could legally use what are called in the intelligence trade coercive methods of interrogation. These include sleep deprivation, stress positions, light and sound manipulation, temperature controls and mild forms of physical intimidation.
The one technique whose legal status was left unresolved was water-boarding, a highly effective interrogation method that induces the sensation of drowning but without inflicting any physical damage. Some do regard that as torture and want it stopped. The CIA has used water-boarding on top al-Qaeda captives. Whether Bush could, or would, authorize its continued use by executive order remains unclear.
With that exception, however, the White House and Congress appear to be on the same page regarding how coercive American interrogators can be in extracting information from top terrorists.
Assuming all the fine print checks out in the subsequent Senate legislation, the Bush-McCain compromise protects national security while assuring American adherence to the rule of law, both domestic and international. These shared goals made the Bush-McCain compromise possible notwithstanding all the sound and fury of recent weeks.
Significantly, the compromise also restores effective oversight by Congress of the most sensitive aspects of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war against terrorism. That corrects a troubling omission that bothered even some conservatives, witness the revolt by McCain, Warner and Graham. All are conservative Republicans, staunch supporters of the military and strong backers of the war against terrorism.
McCain in particular brings unimpeachable moral authority to the debate over the legal and moral limits on detainee interrogations. As a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years, McCain was severely tortured. He bears the scars of that torture, including one arm noticeably shorter than the other.
But Bush, too, deserves great credit; first for his resolute defense of national security imperatives and then for his willingness to strike a reasonable compromise with Congress. The president insisted that the CIA’s interrogation program continue and that Congress legally protect American interrogators by enacting proper statutory authority.
Both are essential to defeating the terrorists and preventing another 9/11-type attack.
Bush’s impassioned, detailed defense of the CIA program on Sept. 6 and a startling investigative report by ABC News correspondent Brian Ross add powerfully to the case for coercive interrogations of high-value terrorist captives.
Bush revealed that information obtained under duress from a top al-Qaeda lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, led to the apprehension of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the 9/11 attack, and Ramzi bin al Shibh. Both were senior associates of Osama bin Laden. Further coercive interrogations of all three identified more key al-Qaeda operatives and led to their capture.
These interrogations also uncovered post-9/11 plots to again attack the United States, to use anthrax as a biological weapon against Americans, to bomb high-rise buildings in the United States and to employ a truck bomb against a U.S. Marine base in Djibouti in East Africa.
Bush wouldn’t reveal the interrogation techniques used but most if not all of the top al-Qaeda figures in U.S. custody are believed to have been subjected to water-boarding. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a study in snarling defiance after his capture in 2003, is said to have begun talking after only two and a half minutes of water-boarding.
ABC’s Ross reported that tough, coercive questioning of all 14 high-value terrorists recently transferred from secret CIA facilities abroad to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, uncovered a dozen or more specific plots to attack the United States. Among these planned attacks, Ross reported, was a plan to fly hijacked airliners into the tallest high-rise in Los Angeles.
Bush and his administration can be faulted for long resisting congressional oversight and for yielding now only because a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled, wrongly, that captured terrorists qualify for some protection under the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3. In fact, Common Article 3 was written to cover civil wars, not international terrorism. Moreover, the Geneva Conventions in total were clearly intended to set rules for conflicts between nation states, not to extend protected prisoner-of-war status to international terrorists who deliberately murder civilians and represent no government or nation.
The Bush-McCain compromise makes the best of this legal hash. More importantly, it gives the president specific congressional authority for an interrogation program essential to defeating an international army of mass murderers bent on killing more Americans. For that, we can all be thankful.