Terror Interrogations & the MA Senate Race

Terror Interrogations & the MA Senate Race

By Marc Thiessen - January 19, 2010

Next to health care, the issue that has dominated the debate in the Massachusetts Senate race is terrorism. Scott Brown, the Republican running ahead in the race for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat today, has campaigned as an unabashed supporter of enhanced interrogation. Brown - who serves as a JAG lawyer in the Army National Guard - has argued that the Christmas Day bomber should be interrogated as an enemy combatant, not given the right to remain silent. And he has said of waterboarding, "I do not believe it is torture. America does not torture ... we used aggressive, enhanced interrogation techniques."

There is a lesson here for Republicans. If an outspoken supporter of waterboarding can run this strongly in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, imagine how the issue will play in the rest of America.

The fact is President Obama has placed our country in grave danger by dismantling the CIA's program to interrogate senior terrorist leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. By limiting all terrorist interrogations to the techniques in the Army Field Manual, Obama is actually requiring that captured terrorists receive better treatment in the interrogation room than common criminals being questioned at your local police precinct. Not only has he eliminated lawful interrogation techniques, under his administration the United States is no longer trying to capture the leaders of al Qaeda alive, and bring them in for interrogation so they can tell us their plans for future attacks.

Despite these facts, some in the GOP have been hesitant to speak out about President Obama's elimination of the CIA program, for fear of being branded as supporters of torture. They have nothing to fear. The label is false and it will not stick. As I make clear in my book, Courting Disaster, Scott Brown has it right: The CIA's interrogation of senior al Qaeda terrorists was not torture. Moreover, these interrogations were responsible for helping the CIA breaking up a number of terrorist attacks - including plots to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti, and to fly hijacked airplanes into buildings in London and Los Angeles. This is a strong record to run on - and dismantling the CIA program that foiled these plots is a major vulnerability for Obama and the Democrats.

Polls show that the more the public learns about the CIA's interrogation program, the more Americans support it. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 58% of Americans say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. Just 30% were opposed. There are few issues on which conservatives have a more disparate advantage.

This is consistent with other polling on enhanced interrogation. For example, the Pew Research Center has been polling on this matter for more than four years, and in the course of the six Pew Polls over that period, support for enhanced interrogation (Pew calls it "torture" in its questions) has actually grown by a statistically significant margin. In July 2005, Pew reports that 43 percent of those polled were in favor while 53 percent were said to be opposed. By April 2009 opinion had flipped to 49 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.

But even these numbers understate the level of public support for enhanced interrogation. The Pew Poll actually gave respondents four options to choose from: the techniques should be used "often," "sometimes," "rarely," or "never." In April 2009, 15% of Americans said they should be used "often" (a surprising result); 34% said "sometimes"; 22% said "rarely"; and 25% said "never." What this means is fully 71% of Americans say there are circumstances in which they would support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (in fact, they are saying they would support the use of outright torture).

In truth, the answer "rarely" actually best describes how frequently enhanced interrogation techniques were used during the Bush administration. Of the more than 80,000 individuals captured in the war on terror, only about thirty terrorists were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques of any kind - and just three were waterboarded. In other words, according to Pew's results, 49 percent of Americans would be willing to accept the use of enhanced interrogation techniques more frequently than they were actually employed. As Andy Kohut, the Director of the Pew Research Center, put it in an interview, "the public has not been reluctant to deal pretty strongly with terrorists."

The majority of Americans support the use of these techniques because they are increasingly convinced that they worked in keeping our nation safe from terror. A Resurgent Republic poll in May 2009 found that a majority of Americans believe enhanced interrogations were effective (55 to 39 percent); that the Obama Administration has tied the hands of the CIA in fighting terrorism by limiting interrogators to the Army Field Manual (51 to 42 percent); that the Obama Administration made a serious mistake in releasing memos from the Bush Justice Department on enhanced interrogation techniques (54 to 41 percent); and they oppose criminal investigations of those responsible for authorizing or conducting those interrogations (62 to 32 percent).

Terrorist interrogation is an issue where the public is increasingly opposed to the Obama administration's policies - and open to the arguments of those who support restoring the CIA's ability to effectively question high-ranking terrorist leaders. Yet the most vocal conservative leader on this topic is a retired Vice President of the United States who has said he has no intention of ever running for office again. Dick Cheney has been heroic in defending the CIA and warning of the dangers we face as a result of the Obama administration's policies - but it is time for others to join him in this debate. Americans are listening, if they will summon the courage to speak out. As Scott Brown has shown, waterboarding is a winning issue.

Marc Thiessen is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  His new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, released this week by Regnery. For more information visit:

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