Torture Must Remain an Option of Last Resort

Torture Must Remain an Option of Last Resort

By Michael Smerconish - January 25, 2009

If President Obama had read The Inquirer on Tuesday, he would have seen this headline: " 'We're proud' of 9/11, Guantanamo pair say." What followed was an Associated Press story on what could be the last session of the war-crimes court in Guantanamo Bay.

"We did what we did; we're proud of Sept. 11," said Ramzi Binalshibh, a senior al-Qaeda member. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, echoed that sentiment, and at one point asked that his lawyer be removed because counsel represented the "people who tortured me."

Torture was on Obama's mind in his inaugural address and two days later when he signed an executive order outlawing aggressive interrogation techniques. "I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture," the president said Thursday.

His actions came as no surprise. Candidate Obama made clear his opposition to harsh interrogation techniques. And in his second full day of office, the president also signed an executive order to close Guantanamo.

I hope the president reconsiders. No one, including me, is "for" torture. But let's evaluate that option with common sense in the context of limited information published about actual implementation.

One well-documented case is that of Mohammed, who continues to boast of his role in murdering 3,000 innocents.

Logic dictates that those assigned to question Mohammed were our most skilled interrogators. If those individuals could procure information from Mohammed with quiche and a warm blanket, they would have done so. Therefore, if the interrogation included coercive measures, it would not seem a leap of faith to conclude that less strenuous measures failed.

There was great deliberation about how to approach Mohammed and other high-value detainees, and their treatment was approved by no less than the secretary of defense and vice president. In other words, this was not Abu Ghraib, a case of aberrant soldiers acting outside their authority to degrade and humiliate other human beings.

To the contrary, extreme methods were implemented on the recommendation of individuals with expertise in such matters and in consultation with the military chain of command. The techniques were to be used sparingly with prisoners who were believed to possess information that could save lives. For the entire hullabaloo about waterboarding, only three prisoners at Gitmo are said to have undergone that method.

Among those who have acknowledged the need to keep all options on the table in such limited instances are law professor Alan Dershowitz, former President Bill Clinton, and Sen. John McCain.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal in November 2007, Dershowitz observed: "Although I am personally opposed to the use of torture, I have no doubt that any president - indeed any leader of a democratic nation - would in fact authorize some forms of torture against a captured terrorist if he believed that this was the only way of securing information necessary to prevent an imminent mass-casualty attack. The only dispute is whether he would do so openly with accountability, or secretly with deniability."

In an National Public Radio interview, Clinton recommended that Congress draw a narrow statute "which would permit the president to make a finding" in the case of a ticking-time-bomb scenario. The commander in chief, Clinton added, would have to "take personal responsibility" for authorizing torture in such extreme cases.

The idea of responsibility is one that even McCain has acknowledged. McCain as a presidential candidate spoke against torture. But in 2005, he told Newsweek: "You do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it." And in February, McCain voted against legislation that would limit U.S. interrogators to methods approved in the Army Field Manual, which disallows physical force.

Critics argue that Americans are above such barbarism, that torture doesn't work, and that it produces false information.

Well, no one ever responded better to an argument like this than David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who observed: "While it is good that there be a world full of peace, fraternity, justice and honesty, it is even more important that we be in it."

As for the efficacy, again, think of those charged with the awesome responsibility to get information from the likes of Mohammed. Surely they don't relish using harsh techniques and would not recommend doing so unless they believed that all other measures were exhausted, and that the most extreme measures could work.

If the experts thought these techniques useless, there would be no debate. Sadly, given security considerations, their voices cannot be heard in this argument. But if our interrogators think these derided methods must be kept in our arsenal, who are we to second guess them?

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at

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