Monday, May 09, 2011

When Your Actions Are Defensible, You Don't Have to Lie

I'm sure that there are any number of online reactions to John Yoo's recent prevarications in the Washington Post but, even if so, I'll add one more. One of the most incredible aspects of the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is how various incompetents from the Bush Administration have attempted to use the raid to justify torture. Long gone are the days when those same incompetents argued that we didn't actually torture people, and long gone is the "ticking time bomb" excuse for torture. Now the case appears to be that if you obtain through torture any information that with the application of hindsight might somehow connect to a law enforcement success at some point in the future, no matter how many years pass, torture is wonderful, necessary and successful.

The argument belies itself. If the fruits of torture are so accurate and useful, and if the mite of information allegedly gleaned from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in fact led inexorably to the raid on bin Laden, that raid should have occurred six or so years ago - when the information was fresh. Instead what did we see? Yoo's former lord and master, G.W. Bush, declaring that bin Laden was no longer among his priorities - even as far back as 2002:

"The idea of focusing on one person, is, um, really indicates to me that people really don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And, uh, he's just, he's a person who'se now been marginalized.... So, I don't know where he is, nor, you know, I just don't spend that much time on it, Kelly, to be honest with you."
So when G.W. announced that bin Laden was irrelevant, failing to capture or kill him was no big deal, and that he had other things to worry about it, his lap dogs had not one word of criticism. Now, almost a decade later, they're yipping at President Obama because he succeeded where Bush failed, and suddenly bin Laden is the most important fugitive in the world.

If we step back in time, the story of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's torture seems to be something along the lines of this: He was captured and detained for interrogation, and was proving to be a source of valuable intelligence. Then somebody with a Dick Cheney mindset apparently said, "Hey - we'll get even more information if we torture him," and John Yoo happily signed on to write a memo to immunize the torturers from prosecution. Torture proceeded, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shared countless plots, many of which were never more than pipe dreams, and some of which appear to have been made up on the spot (because, as you know, that's how you stop torture - by telling the torturer what he wants to hear.) And despite the continued protestation of people like Yoo and Marc Thiessen, the torture program was declared a failure and was cancelled.

If, in fact, the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed produced a valuable bit of information that led so easily to bin Laden, as Yoo suggests - facts be damned - why wasn't that lead followed in a timely manner?
The United States located al Qaeda's leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.

Armed with the courier's nom de guerre, American intelligence agencies later found him thanks to his phone call to a contact already under electronic surveillance. Last August, the courier traveled to bin Laden's compound, but it took another eight months before the CIA became certain that the al Qaeda leader was hiding inside.
Surely Yoo isn't going to try to argue to us that the courier did not visit bin Laden so much as once between the torture of KSM and last August. If Yoo is correct about the value of that information, then he should be honest about how torture impacted the ability of U.S. intelligence to winnow useful information out of the avalanche of garbage KSM produced under torture.

Yoo offers a childish caricature of how the U.S. might have treated captured war criminals had President Obama been in charge after 9/11:
Imagine what would have happened if the Obama administration had been running things immediately following 9/11. After their "arrest," we would have read KSM and al-Libi their Miranda rights, provided them legal counsel, sent them to the U.S. for detention, and granted them all the rights provided a U.S. citizen in criminal proceedings.
Because, you know, it's either that or rendition, black sites and torture - no possible middle ground. Not only is Yoo offering a false dichotomy, it's not even consistent with his argument - he's suggesting that Bush would have tried to gently capture bin Laden, take him into custody and interrogate him, while President Obama was too much of a cowboy. A little consistency, please?

And let's also remember that the Bush Administration did arrest suspected terrorists after 9/11 and, while it did play fast and loose with the Constitution with no small amount of help from people like Yoo, some notable terrorists were Mirandized and were tried in federal court. I don't recall that, at the time, people like Yoo were decrying how the Bush Administration's successful prosecution of terrorists was undermining the war on terror. You didn't hear Yoo scold President Bush for announcing that he wanted to capture bin Laden "dead or alive." You didn't hear so much of a whimper of criticism when Bush ordered a raid that resulted in the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, both of whom could have provided valuable intelligence had they been captured alive.

Yoo also acts as if President Obama was in the room when bin Laden was killed, rather than being the person who signed off on a carefully constructed military operation:
As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.
Were Yoo an honest man he would admit that, had President Obama turned the mission into a larger operation intended to capture bin Laden, he and his ilk would be the first to point their fingers and screech about his "meddling in a military operation" had the mission failed, or had any soldiers died or been taken prisoner. Had President Obama instructed military leaders to change their plan to prioritize capture, and had that resulted in a similar failure, Yoo would similarly be screeching about the President's incompetence. Bin Laden is reported to have always had a weapon within reach, and he could easily have had his compound rigged with explosives - Yoo's fantasies of, "Maybe if we had sent more helicopters and more soldiers" really aren't reflective of the reality of what happens when soldiers enter a small room to engage in close quarters combat. (In fairness, perhaps Yoo learned military strategy by playing Doom.)

As it stands, the mission was a success, but success isn't good enough for Yoo. Perhaps it's too good, because people like Yoo sometimes seem to be programmed to root for the President to fail. But it's abundantly clear that, even if he thought otherwise, Yoo would have either lavished praise upon G.W. for a similar raid or, at most, kept his mouth shut. Just as he wouldn't be praising the current President for successfully capturing bin Laden, had the man been taken alive.

Yoo insists that capturing bin Laden "alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay". Why? Does Yoo believe that the U.S. never held an international criminal, terrorist, or war criminal before we built that prison in Cuba? Has he failed to review the Supreme Court rulings that have resulted from the Bush Administration's treatment of prisoners that have dramatically reduced what were intended as the benefits of the Guantanamo prison - the notion of people like Yoo that the U.S. could sequester prisoners in its custody from any constitutional protections? Perhaps he's imagining that it would become politically necessary, thanks to the hypocritical squawkings of prominent Republicans who, up to Obama's election, favored closing the Guantanamo prison.

As for Yoo's quaint notion that the President should "restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden", I again remind him that it was not the Obama administration that abandoned the Bush era torture program as a failure. That was President Bush.

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