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May 16, 2004

Flashback: When Clinton Was President, Torture Was Cool

Under the control of Richard Clarke, the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) had established a specal bin Laden unit in 1996, and by 1998 had over one hundred case officers and intelligence analysts.

" With the help of the CTC, forty terrorists from the former Yugoslavia were captured and turned over to Arab governments, usually Egypt. Egyptian security is believed to have tortured, tried, and executed many of them. In this way, al Qaeda cells were quickly smashed in Albania, Bosnia, and elsewhere."

-- Losing Bin Laden, by Richard Miniter

We didn't hear the press complaining then. Indeed, Clinton's use of torture (which, by the way, we supported, and continue to support) was treated as proof of his "seriousness" about the issue of terrorism. It proved he was no limp-wristed hand-wringing liberal bleeding heart. It showed he was tough.

What a difference a partisan registration makes, eh?

This article is reprinted on what seems to be an anti-war site, but it's originally from the Washington Post, written by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, with reporting by Bob Woodward.

We'd like to make several points here.

The article is completely nonjudgmental on the issue of torture. It's straight reporting. Actually, one could even claim it's somewhat positive on the subject, since most of the quotes from experts state that torture is necessary and effective, and there isn't prominent placement of "we should be above this" quotes from human-rights whiners.

Maybe that's just because Dana Priest wrote it, who seems, to the extent we're familiar with her (and we're not especially familiar with her) a fairly straight reporter.

But it might also be indicative of the general press attitude -- indeed, the general American attitude -- towards such nasty techniques in the aftermath of 9-11.

It seems strange to us that reporters used to claim they understood that this is a different kind of war, and that the old rules had to go by the wayside.

But now it's a whole year and a half later. Apparently the press is upset because while they supported tough interrogation tactics a year and a half ago, they've now changed their mind, and they're very, very angry that Bush hasn't changed his mind with them.

Either that, or it's an election year. What was accepted as being a necessary but repugnant practice in late 2002 is suddenly deemed abhorrent and anti-American and just plain godawful because it's far more important to drive George Bush out of the White House than terrorists out of their caves and sanctuaries.

On Fox News Sunday, Juan Williams claimed that he was terribly, terribly outraged about the Abu Ghraib abuses, but also claimed that he was in favor of using "legitimate" interrogation tactics to wrest crucial, life-saving information from terrorists.

He didn't specify what those "legitimate" tactics might be. He just asserted that the Geneva Conventions permit such tactics, without troubling himself to list them.

Indeed, one of the tactics Williams mentioned as especially abhorrent was "putting hoods over the heads" of prisoners. Sensory deprivation and deliberate disorientation would seem to us to be the least coercive and least brutal of all possible coercive techniques. And yet, Mr. Williams, claiming there are a whole host of tough tactics he supports which are in fact permitted by the Geneva Conventions, is outraged even by "hooding" prisoners.

Since the Geneva Conventions ban all coercive practices, we're not sure what "legitimate" tactics Juan Williams might have in mind. He objects passionately to even the least-brutal techniques known.

Perhaps he would lower himself to using harsh language, as Corporal Hudson once suggested.

Either that, or it's an election year, and Juan Williams has decided that it's okay to compromise American security by being suddenly "outraged" about practices he knows are completely necessary and justified, and which were, indeed, deemed just jake with him a scant year and a half ago.

More... The mainstream/liberal Atlantic Monthly headlined an article thus in January 2002:

A Nasty Business

Gathering "good intelligence" against terrorists is an inherently brutish enterprise, involving methods a civics class might not condone. Should we care?

The writer is torn by self-doubt and his precious conscience, as all good liberals always should be, but he recounts this story:

cannot use his real name, so I will call him Thomas. However, I had been told before our meeting, by the mutual friend—a former Sri Lankan intelligence officer who had also long fought the LTTE—who introduced us (and was present at our meeting), that Thomas had another name, one better known to his friends and enemies alike: Terminator. My friend explained how Thomas had acquired his sobriquet; it actually owed less to Arnold Schwarzenegger than to the merciless way in which he discharged his duties as an intelligence officer. This became clear to me during our conversation. "By going through the process of laws," Thomas patiently explained, as a parent or a teacher might speak to a bright yet uncomprehending child, "you cannot fight terrorism." Terrorism, he believed, could be fought only by thoroughly "terrorizing" the terrorists—that is, inflicting on them the same pain that they inflict on the innocent. Thomas had little confidence that I understood what he was saying. I was an academic, he said, with no actual experience of the life-and-death choices and the immense responsibility borne by those charged with protecting society from attack. Accordingly, he would give me an example of the split-second decisions he was called on to make. At the time, Colombo was on "code red" emergency status, because of intelligence that the LTTE was planning to embark on a campaign of bombing public gathering places and other civilian targets. Thomas's unit had apprehended three terrorists who, it suspected, had recently planted somewhere in the city a bomb that was then ticking away, the minutes counting down to catastrophe. The three men were brought before Thomas. He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists—highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation—remained silent. Thomas asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So Thomas took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved. On other occasions, Thomas said, similarly recalcitrant terrorists were brought before him. It was not surprising, he said, that they initially refused to talk; they were schooled to withstand harsh questioning and coercive pressure. No matter: a few drops of gasoline flicked into a plastic bag that is then placed over a terrorist's head and cinched tight around his neck with a web belt very quickly prompts a full explanation of the details of any planned attack.

It seemed widely understood, even by liberals, that such methods might be brutish and nasty, and possibly even forbidden, but they did seem to have an appreciation that "outrage" was out-the-window. After 9-11, it was no longer an easy moral call that "of course" torturing terrorists was outrageous.

And yet, now in this presidential campaign season, liberals seem to have recovered all of their moral certainty and moral posturing, conveniently just in time to make a political issue out of the techniques.


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