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A Confused Debate Over Torture

By Mark Davis

John Kiriakou is a very confused man, but I'll give him some latitude. He's been involved in some high drama on the front lines of the war on terror, finding himself at the vortex of the debate that has scrambled the brains of an entire nation.

The debate is over torture. Mr. Kiriakou is a retired CIA agent who has seen a detainee waterboarded.

And it worked. He was part of the undercover team in Faisalabad, Pakistan, that interrogated Abu Zubaydah, the first major al-Qaeda figure captured in the months following 9/11.

Mr. Zubaydah helped plan those attacks, and the CIA had high confidence that he knew of other murderous plans. Early questioning was fruitless. "We knew he was the biggest fish we had caught, we knew he was full of information, and we wanted to get it," Mr. Kiriakou told ABC's Brian Ross.

So a rare question went up the chain of command, and the answer came back: Yes, this detainee can be waterboarded. Mr. Zubaydah was placed on his back, his head angled slightly downward. Water was poured over his covered face, rendering the drowning sensation that the CIA says would later yield valuable answers from prime 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

About 35 seconds later, Mr. Zubaydah was ready to talk. "From that day on, he answered every question," Mr. Kiriakou recalls, and they were not the useless, desperate replies that waterboarding opponents insist are the procedure's only result. "The threat information he provided prevented a number of attacks."

In a sensible era, that's it. Case closed. But these days are not so simple. Our war effort is hampered by the finger wagging and hand wringing of people who cannot tolerate winning on those terms.

One is Sen. John McCain, whose actual status as a torture victim in Vietnam gives him a right to be heard. But that does not make him right, and Mr. McCain's assertions that aggressive interrogations do not work are again proved historically false.

But joining him now in the ranks of doubters is Mr. Kiriakou, who has undergone some bizarre partial change of heart and mind. His eyes and ears saw waterboarding save innocent life, and yet he now joins the "We're better than that" chorus that scolds America for doing what it takes to win.

But with the same mouth, he asserts with clarity that what was done to Mr. Zubaydah was necessary and that calls for interrogators to bond with detainees and earn their trust is ridiculously naive. "What happens if we don't waterboard a person and we don't get that nugget of information? I would have trouble forgiving myself."

These words could have immeasurable value if Mr. Kiriakou could unburden himself from inexplicable second-guessing. ABC's Mr. Ross asks if waterboarding "compromised American principles or saved American lives?"

Mr. Kiriakou says: "Both."

Bad question, bad answer.

Saving American lives is the principle that matters above all others, and nothing we do that measurably achieves that goal deserves derision. Mr. Kiriakou's media tour this week apparently is spurred by his disappointment that the CIA destroyed tapes of interrogation sessions.

Fine, we can have that argument. But if a hissy fit over that separate issue has darkened a CIA veteran's view of having done the right thing, he needs to get over it.

"America is better than that?" The perversity of those words is stunning. What exactly is "better" than winning the war and protecting our people?

We have heard much from the portion of America that grows queasy at the thought of tough treatment for al-Qaeda detainees. But I'll share what makes me queasy: my countrymen in tattered clothes perched at windows a thousand feet high against the Manhattan skyline, their lungs burning with jet fuel, making the decision to jump to their deaths because it was a better fate than what awaited them if they did not.

Against the backdrop of that memory, anyone worked up about the occasional, carefully targeted waterboarding is simply not serious about protecting our nation.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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