Impossible Standards to Meet

Sometimes you have to sit by and marvel either at President Barack Obama’s political skill and other times you have to wonder why the press seems to be so inept in asking questions without adequate follow-up. At this week’s presidential news conference we were provided the opportunity to experience both.

Virtually everyone, at least untilĀ  Obama’s recent comments, acknowledges that there are instances when extraordinary interrogation techniques are not only necessary but morally required. The ticking time-bomb scenario (you need information about the location of a ticking time bomb to save many innocent lives) represents the extreme case. Senator John McCain, who has some moral authority in this area because he was deliberated tortured by the North Vietnamese, recognizes this exception.

When asked about an analogous dilemma that might face him as president, Obama refused to acknowledge the possibility and established a impossible standard to meet with regard to the efficacy of such decisions. He said:

“But here’s what I can tell you, that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques, which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques, don’t answer the core question.Which is, could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques?”

Of course, it is impossible to conduct a controlled experiment or prove a negative with regard to alternative strategies. We do know that a number of former CIA directors and others have insisted that the techniques in question have saved lives. Even Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, concedes that. “High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” [1]

Of course, we can never know with precision what would have happen if an alternative policy had been pursued. Assume that after a long period of conventional interrogation, a high-level Al Qaeda operative provides little useful information. Then extraordinary interrogation techniques are used and the detainee provides information that breaks up a plot days away from execution.

There is no way to know with certainty that if we had not extended conventional questioning a few more days that the information would have finally been revealed. We would never know with certainty if a foiled plot might have been adverted another way, including clumsiness on the part of the terrorists. In other words, Obama has relieved himself of moral responsibility by setting up an impossible burden of proof for others. While this is rhetorically clever, it avoids dealing with a critical issue that may confront an administration. We hope that more serious discussions about such issues are going on behind the scenes, even is dismissed in public. If not, the refusal to confront such issues guarantees that if such a situation arises, decisions will have to be made without the benefit of patient consideration.

All we know is that the policies followed before 9/11 were insufficient to prevent an attack and the policies afterward did protect the United States for the entire Bush Administration. We hope that whatever policies with regard to extraordinary interrogation Obama implements are as successful. The extraordinary interrogation techniques were used in the immediate aftermath of the capture of high-level Al Qaeda operatives. Since we are unlikely to have a similar opportunity in the near future, the question may be moot.

[1] Blair’s conclusion was edited from White House information releases. When the Obama Administration does this, it is careful editing. If the Bush Administration had edited a rhetorically inconvenient conclusion of the intelligence community, it would be cherry-picking information.

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