Thursday, September 21, 2006

Al-Qaeda Detainees -- Not a Ticking Bomb

In my last post I acknowledged that I could not condemn torture in a true ticking bomb situation, i.e., one in which the threat was immediate and there was no other way of finding out. But that is not the case with high-level Al-Qaeda detainees. I know that Bush has said that he has gained valuable intelligence from the not-quite-torture of these detainees and foiled numerous plots. But even that, in my mind, is not enough to justify their not-quite-torture. That would be justified only if we could establish that there was no other way to stop the plots. And that seems unlikely.

Simply put, large-scale, elaborate terrorist plans create evidence. They leave traces. Preceeding both the Millenium Plot and September 11, there was great increased "chatter." In both cases, the government knew something was coming down the pike; it just didn't know what. Granted, in the case of the Millenium Plot we caught a lucky break. But, as it has been made clear, there were a number of lucky breaks waiting to happen in the September 11 plot as well. None of the lucky breaks quite broke, and I have already said I do not blame the government for missing them. But I will blame the government more in the future if they continue to miss lucky breaks, not that they have been so dramatically alerted to the threat.

As I have said before, the capture of an Al-Qaeda leader is more than the capture of an individual, it involves the capture of computers, documents, contact information, and other leads. These can be followed by analysis of the documents, wiretaps, surveillance, leads from informants, and cooperation with the intelligence services in other countries. And we can hope to learn more by classic interrogation techniques, i.e., by psychological manipulation, separation of the terrorists, confrontation with evidence picked up from other sources, confrontation with inconsistent statements and the like. Granted, hard-core Al-Qaeda types have been trained to resist such approaches. Granted, analysis of other information will be slower and less complete without the terrorists' "cooperation." But the best remedy in that case is to build up the translation and analysis sections of our intelligence services and to work with other countries that already have such resources. Let us not forget, the United States has a great advantage over Europe here. We do not have an local angry, alienated Muslim population who are likely to engage in acts of terror. Attacks by Islamic extremists are most likely to come from outside. This is logistically more difficult and will produce more evidence.

If the chatter increases and it becomes clear that an attack is pending, by all means, let us be aggressive in following up all potential leads, and in orthodox interrogation of terrorists in our custody. But even then, even then let us stick to orthodox methods. If it appears that zero hour is at hand (as was broadcast the day before the attacks, but not translated until after), if we have exhausted all other leads, if nothing, nothing is revealing what imminent attack is at hand, then I would say we have a true ticking bomb situation. But nothing short of that will count.

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