Obama's false choice on interrogation
My Post colleague David Ignatius has an important column today on the costs of not having a coherent detention and interrogation policy. The U.S. has dramatically escalated the targeted killing of terrorists, Ignatius writes, while efforts to capture senior al-Qaeda leaders have "virtually stopped." This new reluctance to capture terrorists comes with an intelligence cost, he points out, as "The United States and its allies lose the information that could have come from interrogation, along with the cell phones, computers and other communication gear that could be seized in a successful raid."
Ignatius notes that one reason for the paucity of live captures is that many of the terrorists we target are hiding out in tribal regions of Pakistan -- and that sending elite CIA or Special Operations teams into these regions puts them at risk of being surrounded and captured themselves. It is true that there are times when terrorists are discovered hiding out in areas that are dangerous or inaccessible, and thus killing them is the only feasible option. But this does not explain the decision by President Obama in September 2009 to kill rather than capture Saleh Ali Nabhan -- the top leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa. As The Post reported earlier this year:
Nabhan could have provided the U.S with a wealth of information on al-Qaeda in East Africa, and its new affiliate -- the Somali terror group al-Shabab -- whose merger with al-Qaeda Nabhan had recently supervised. This group has recruited at least 20 American citizens to train as foreign fighters -- a sign that they have designs to the attack the American homeland. Nabhan could have filled in the gaps in our knowledge about al-Shabab's capabilities and intent. But that information was vaporized when President Obama ordered him killed.
When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.
The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.
The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.... "We wanted to take a prisoner," a senior military officer said of the Nabhan operation. "It was not a decision that we made."
The fact that the Obama was able to send helicopters to kill Nabhan, rather than using missiles, means he was reachable and might have been taken alive. And at this moment there are many other terrorists hiding out in East Africa, North Africa, Yemen, Pakistan, and other areas where capturing them alive is feasible. But the Obama administration has made a conscious decision to kill, rather than capture, these individuals -- and thus forgo the intelligence they could have provided us on the intent and capability of various al-Qaeda to attack the homeland. They have made this decision in part because, as Ignatius notes, even if we captured someone alive, today we have nowhere to put them. The CIA's black sites are closed and, Ignatius writes, "agency officials have been advised that Guantanamo is closed for new business."
What is puzzling is how, after eloquently laying out the costs of Obama's restrictions on detention and interrogation, Ignatius ends by defending them -- while arguing that our policy of killing rather than capturing terrorists "needs a clearer foundation in law and public understanding than it is today." But the choice Obama has presented between following the Bush administration approach to interrogation and doing nothing is (as the president likes to say) a "false choice." As I pointed out in The Post in February, there is a middle ground on interrogation that would allow the U.S. to capture and question senior terrorist leaders without employing waterboarding and other techniques with which Obama disagrees. The CIA interrogation program Obama inherited and dismantled included none of those techniques. He could simply restore that scaled-down program, which was successful in eliciting important intelligence from high-value al-Qaeda leaders in the waning years of the Bush administration. Or he could follow the advice then-CIA Director Mike Hayden gave him when he issued his executive order restricting all interrogation to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, by adding six simple words to that directive: "unless otherwise authorized by the president."
This would be less than ideal. But it would be far better than the situation we face today, where we vaporize terrorists from 10,000 feet and let them take their secrets to the grave. That approach is morally and strategically indefensible.
| December 2, 2010; 1:51 PM ET
Categories: Thiessen | Tags: Marc Thiessen
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