Let’s reopen the “torture” debate

On Sunday, the Washington Post featured an attack on Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to be CIA Director, by John Kiriakou. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer who served 23 months in prison after being charged with five felonies, including espionage, by the Obama Justice Department.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consider the source.

The sub-headline of Kiriakou’s piece (paper edition) was “The torture debate was over — until Haspel’s nomination.” It would be excellent if the nomination reopens the debate over harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

I don’t expect this to happen, though. Haspel won’t defend these practices. And she will probably make nice with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as the Senator returns to the warpath against the patriotic CIA officers who took steps that seemed necessary to defend America in the wake of 9/11, after being told by the Justice Department (correctly in my view) that these steps were lawful.

But since Kiriakou raised the subject, let’s consider his arguments. One is that “we know” the techniques Haspel and others used on terrorist Abu Zubaida didn’t disrupt attacks and save American lives. We know this, Kiriakou says, “thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture and the personal testimony of [a] FBI interrogator.”

But the report in question is a one-sided, partisan document that reached the conclusions Sen. Feinstein desired. It was written solely by Democratic staffers. Committee Republicans wrote a 100 page refutation that denounced the report as sloppy and factually incorrect. Some of their criticisms are summarized in this New York Times article.

But even accepting Kiriakou’s claim that enhanced interrogation of Abu Zubaida yielded no actionable intelligence, the real issue is whether such interrogation yielded actionable intelligence in some cases. The CIA, of course, cannot know in advance which enhanced interrogations will produce actionable intelligence.

Although Feinstein’s partisan report denied it, there is bipartisan support for the proposition that enhanced interrogation of other terrorists produced information that helped lead us to Osama bin Laden. That’s the view of Leon Panetta. Michael Mukasey makes the case here. For what it’s worth, John Brennan also says enhanced interrogation was effective in the fight against terrorism, including the tracking down on bin Laden.

Kiriakou trots out the old argument that our enhanced interrogation techniques “swelled the ranks” of terrorist organizations. Indeed, he writes, they were “among the greatest recruitment tools that al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other bad actors ever had, according to legal experts.” (Emphasis added) Kiriakou doesn’t explain why he relies on “legal experts” in considering a factual question having nothing to do with the law.

Actually, in the opinion of this lawyer, weakness is the greatest recruitment tool for groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Our passivity in response to the rise of al Qaeda swelled that outfit’s ranks pre-9/11, before we waterboarded anyone. Our exit from Iraq under President Obama, along with his subsequent failure for several years to take ISIS seriously, spurred its recruiting successes. How many Westerners are joining ISIS now that it has been routed in Iraq and Syria?

In any case, it’s telling that Kiriakou relies on a flawed, partisan Senate report as to the issue of the efficacy of enhanced interrogation and on the opinion of “legal experts” as to the issue of terrorist recruitment. It tells us it’s time to reopen “the torture debate.”

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