When Are Aggressive Interogation Techniques Justified?

While interviewed on Fox News Sunday by anchor Chris Wallace, former President Bill Clinton grew defensive about criticism of his efforts to apprehend or kill Osama Bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. He crowed about his aggressive pursuit of bin Laden saying,

“What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since.”

So we have a president of the United States not only admitting, but boasting, that he exercised arbitrary executive authority to direct the killing of a foreign national. Although clearly bin Laden was pursuing a war against the United States, Congress had declared no such war. As chief executive, Clinton was exercising his Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, to protect citizens and interests of the United States. Clinton’s admission of the desire and order to assassinate bin Laden is interesting given that the Church Committee’s investigation of intelligence excesses in 1975 concluded that assassination was “incompatible with American principle, international order, and morality.” Of course, there is an exception in times of war, but at the time that Clinton was attempting to kill bin Laden, there was no state of war. The United States was planning to kill bin Laden because we believed he posed a threat and that it would be easier to kill than append him.

President Ford’s executive order 12,333 provided that “[n]o person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Of course, this presidential order could have been superseded by Clinton. Nonetheless, in the Fox interview, Clinton admits he was aggressively and deliberately violating that executive order. There has been little objection by Democrats on the Left about this now common conclusion that assassinations ordered by the US president can be appropriate.

In retrospect, few would now question the legality of such a potential killing, and many fewer still would question its desirability. Perhaps such an assassination or series of assassinations of Islamic radicals would have prevented the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on September 11. Of course, it is ironic that had such an assassination(s) occurred, there would have been two possible outcomes: either the attacks of 9/11 would or would not have happened. If they had happened, the far-Left would have claimed that the attacks constituted a response to hostile US efforts to kill Islamic leaders. If the attacks of 9/11 had never happened, we would have never known what had been prevented. The assassinations could have still been criticized as yet another example of American international lawlessness. Indeed, anti-Clinton Conservatives would have likely criticized such actions as well.

The morality of a bin Laden assassination, despite any legal issues, rests on the principle that the innocent should be protected with the minimum violence possible. In the case of bin Laden, the application of such deadly force seems justified. We should capture him if we can, and kill him if we must. Can this same principle be applied to the use of torture or aggressive interrogation techniques short of torture?  We seem to have collectively agreed that an assassination that would prevent a terrorist attack is not only morally justified, but morally required. What about aggressive interrogation techniques?

If a president is confronted with high-level terrorists and must use aggressive interrogation techniques to save innocent American lives, to what extent is it morally justifiable? One the one hand, if we are too cavalier with the use of aggressive interrogation techniques we run the risk of unnecessary cruelty and its  morally deadening effect on those who act on our behalf. On the other hand, if we are too punctilious we trade moral posturing for the protection of innocent life.

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