According to reports, the terrorists who carried out last week’s attacks in Brussels acted sooner than originally planned because they feared that captured terrorist Salah Abdeslam would inform authorities of the attacks. Apparently, they need not have worried.
Belgian officials questioned Abdeslam only lightly, and not at all about possible new attacks. Instead, using the discredited law enforcement model, they focused on the Paris attacks of last November, presumably hoping to obtain a confession.
Back in the days of the controversy over waterboarding, there was talk about a “ticking time bomb” scenario. The question was: When we know there’s time bomb ready to go off, but don’t know the location, is it okay to waterboard a captured terrorist who likely has knowledge of the impending attack?
Opponents of waterboarding, having no satisfactory answer, tended to pooh-pooh the question. It was based on an unrealistic scenario, they insisted.
Tell that to the victims of the Brussels attacks.
In reality, most captured terrorists present a variation of the ticking time bomb scenario. These days, organizations like ISIS are constantly planning new attacks. A captured terrorist who has been active recently might very well know something about upcoming attacks in his locale.
It’s unlikely that even in the Age of Obama, the U.S. would have handled Abdeslam as ineffectively as the Belgians did. One can imagine our people declining to question the terrorist for 24 hours because he was hospitalized and then questioning him only for a fairly short time because “he seemed very tired” after surgery. But I doubt that we would have failed to ask about future attacks.
But how far we would have gone to obtain answers? Marc Thiessen suggests we might not have had to go far. He says that “in the CIA’s experience, two-thirds of detainees cooperated without any enhanced interrogation techniques at all.” That’s because “just the experience of disappearing into secret detention — with no idea where they were and no lawyer present — was enough to get them talking.”
But would the Obama administration have “disappeared” Abdeslam following his highly visible capture? And if it had, would he have started talking in time to enable authorities to act on his information?
Finally, and this is key, what if Abdeslam proved to be among the one-third of detainees who don’t cooperate without enhanced interrogation?
In that scenario, no one with a decent regard for innocent human life could object to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on a terrorist like this. Abdeslam was the mastermind behind the Paris attacks. According to Thiessen investigators had found detonators and weapons in a safe house with his fingerprints. This was a ticking time bomb scenario.
It’s time to revisit the question of enhanced interrogation, a question that the U.S. answered incorrectly during a lull in the terrorist threat.