Let me be clear: We all oppose torture.
However, to blindly oppose and broadcast lawful interrogation techniques which were used to successfully protect the American people and to extract valuable information to prevent further harm to us is dangerous at best.
I’d like to respectfully remind everyone to think back to what life was like in America on 9/11. I lived less than two miles from the Pentagon back in 2001. I heard and felt the explosion of the plane hitting the Pentagon on that fateful day. A woman I briefly worked with on the Hill (Barbara Olson—wife of former Solicitor General Ted Olson) was murdered that day; she was on the plane that struck the Pentagon. I will never forget that day. My concern is that the current discussion we are having about interrogation and torture is not being properly discussed in the context of 9/11 and the years thereafter.
Consider the Washington Post’s front-page headline earlier this week: Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan: After Reaching Deal in North, Islamists Aim to Install Religious Law Nationwide.
In this very important (but largely ignored) article, Washington Post foreign service writer Pamela Constable gave Americans great insight into the renewed anti-American sentiments brewing in Pakistan.
The article describes a troubled region that is a hotbed of insurgents, where religious sects, tribal infighting, misogyny, murder of law enforcement officials and suicide bombings are on the rise. Constable writes of a “new era” dawning in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader [Sufi Mohammed], emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a "complete Islamic system" to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.
Under duress, the Pakistan government has agreed to Mohammed's demands in an effort to halt violent intimidation by Taliban forces, which the army has been unable to quell despite months of trying. Constable writes, “Swati leaders and refugees described armed men in black turbans whipping suspected thieves on the spot, cutting off the ears and noses of village elders who opposed them, and selling videos of police beheadings.”
My fellow Americans, cutting off ears and noses, and beheading people is torture. These lawless men, driven by religious extremism, will stop at nothing to do their own people harm. They are driven to destroy Pakistan’s modern democratic institutions by religious ideology rooted in the Koran which says that it is a great sin to support an “infidel” system, like the modern Pakistan.
The fact is that the Taliban is strong and gaining more strength daily. This is a problem for America and Americans. The Taliban intends to carry its armed crusade for a punitive, misogynistic form of Islam rule into new areas, where their fighters have brandished weapons, bombed and occupied buildings, arrested aid workers and killed female activists.
The most chilling part of the Taliban’s resurgence, however, is that there has been little official or public protest against the creeping tide of Islamist extremism. Analysts say this is partly because of fear of retaliation and partly because of strong religious sentiments that make Pakistanis reluctant to criticize fellow Muslims.
Pakistan is believed to be the place where Osama bin Laden may be hiding. Pakistan is home to the Taliban and other extremist Islamic factions. Pakistan poses, perhaps, a greater threat as a breeding ground for modern-day terrorism than any other nation on earth. So what does that mean for the United States of America?
I have no problem with people who disagree with President Bush or his policies. I have no problem with those Americans who opposed the war in Iraq. That is their right. However, I worry that we are crossing a dangerous line when we advocate investigating and/or prosecuting high-ranking government lawyers and Bush administration officials (which logically would have to include President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the president released these memos—there is no upside for him or for America. There is talk of pending investigations on the Hill with the House & Senate Oversight committees. (I served as a counsel on one of these committees during the Clinton years, and they are always hyper-partisan and shrill and they drag on and on—no upside). The attorney general will apparently be looking into these matters further as well. My problem with this discussion is that the framework is flawed. Let’s look at some basic definitions.
Torture: the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty; a method of inflicting such pain; the pain or suffering caused or undergone; to subject to torture; to afflict with severe pain of body or mind: My back is torturing me.
Clearly, the legally authorized (and signed off on by senior congressional officials) interrogation actions that were taken by top leaders in our government from 2002-2006 were done with the interest of Americans’ safety in mind. Lawyers at the Justice Department and at the White House are sworn to uphold the law and to act in “good faith” as they faithfully interpret the laws to the best of their abilities—do we now prosecute them for doing just that?
What about context? Sept. 11 was the first attack on the American mainland by foreign terrorists in our history. Shouldn’t our former president and Justice Department attorneys get the benefit of the doubt that they were in unchartered territory and that they were acting to protect this nation from further attacks? Which, by the way, the former CIA director George Tenet, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and others say can be proven by simply releasing all of the CIA memoranda dealing with these interrogation practices.
First, there is a huge difference between interrogating suspected terrorists or other persons deemed a threat to our national security or military operations and torturing them. It has been most unfortunate, and frankly dangerous, for pundits and politicians to throw the word “torture” around as irresponsibly as they have over the past week. There is no evidence that we “tortured;” there is evidence that we employed tough, approved and lawful interrogation tactics.
Second, when we ignore the fact that the Taliban is growing and spreading throughout Pakistan, when you consider that many other countries including our allies (Britain, Israel, Japan, etc.) employ tough interrogation against suspected war criminals or suspected terrorists, there is only one conclusion: Our president has actually undercut his own authority by saying that the U.S. does not “torture” and that we “made mistakes” when in reality what was done was “interrogation” that saved millions of American lives from Sept. 2001 till the present.
Sophia A. Nelson served as an investigative counsel to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in the late 1990s. She is a regular contributor to The Root.