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Interrogation, Intelligence & Preventing Future 9/11's

Wall Street Journal Editorial

President Bush in the White House East Room Wednesday explained for the first time in detail the importance of interrogation as an intelligence tool in the war on terror. He conceded that some of the techniques used against the likes of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were "tough." But he also used his remarks to declassify a fair bit of information about what's been learned. Quite clearly the interrogations are a major reason there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil in the past five years. The demagogues alleging senseless "torture" at "secret" overseas prisons have now gotten a proper reply.

Like the programs for monitoring bank transfers and warrantless wiretaps overseas, interrogating those who would do us harm has helped keep the country safe with minimal intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans. The alternative to such narrowly targeted programs is a culture of fear in which everyone is a suspect. Without them we'd see the unhappy experience of airport security repeated far more often, not to mention a lot more domestic surveillance. We often wonder if those who routinely object to the Bush Administration's tactics realize they're endangering not just our safety but our civil liberties.

It's worth devoting a little space to the details on interrogations that Mr. Bush offered Wednesday. The President explained that a small number of high-ranking al Qaeda operatives have been held by the CIA at undisclosed locations. They included KSM and others involved the 9/11 attacks, as well as al Qaeda operatives responsible for the 1998 African embassy bombings and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

And what did we learn from the CIA program? A lot, apparently. Senior al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, captured after he was wounded in a firefight in Pakistan, revealed information such as KSM's alias ("Muktar"), which helped lead to the 9/11 ringleader's arrest. Zubaydah also identified Ramzi bin al Shibh as one of KSM's accomplices and provided information leading to his arrest too.

KSM, for his part, led U.S. intelligence to a Southeast Asian terrorist leader named Hambali, whose organization was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing. After his brother was also arrested and a cell of 17 operatives broken up, Hambali confessed he had been acting on KSM's orders to plan another attack on the U.S. KSM also led U.S. intelligence to al Qaeda operatives responsible for a program to develop biological weapons such as anthrax.

In all, it appears a substantial number of plots were foiled because of the CIA interrogation program. They included attacks not only in the U.S. but on targets such as a U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti and the U.S. consulate in Karachi. Mr. Bush said that information from the program played a role in the arrest of "nearly every" senior al Qaeda member in U.S. custody. These detainees have proven invaluable to our general understanding of their organization and have helped the U.S. decipher captured documents and computer records and identified voices on recorded calls.

We're glad Mr. Bush has finally made all this a matter of public record. For too long his critics have been allowed to get away with blithe assertions that the U.S. has been "torturing" detainees and that "torture doesn't work." But as we've been pointing out, there is all the difference in the world between aggressive questioning aimed at saving lives and the infliction of grievous bodily harm for the purposes of punishment or retribution--the latter being how most people understand the word "torture." Had the U.S. interrogated 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef the way it did KSM, it might have learned enough to perhaps stop future attacks. Instead, he was processed through the criminal justice system and has revealed little of intelligence value.

Also Wednesday, Mr. Bush upped the stakes in the Congressional debate over authorizing military tribunals for terrorists by announcing that the high-level al Qaeda operatives have been moved to Guantanamo Bay, with a view to putting them on trial. The long delay in doing this may have been necessary to extract the full intelligence value from these men, but an unfortunate side effect has been to allow critics to paint a false picture of an ineffective and needlessly cruel detainee program and to grandstand over the procedural rights of the accused. We think most Americans will readily understand why it may be necessary to deny KSM access to some of the classified intelligence that will hopefully be used to convict him.

In addition to passing the bill establishing military tribunals, Congress needs to ensure that the men and women responsible for the intelligence success the President outlined Wednesday not be vulnerable to prosecution. The Supreme Court recently ruled the Geneva Convention's vague prohibitions against "degrading" treatment applicable to our conflict with al Qaeda, paving the way for misinterpretation by an ambitious prosecutor. Genuine detainee abuses should be punished, and have been thus far at the Abu Ghraib courts martial and elsewhere. But the men who interrogated KSM were acting on careful legal orders and in the national interest and deserve to be protected like any soldier in the field who defends his country.

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