Obama Keeps al Qaeda at Bay, but Handcuffs the CIA as Well
Treating terrorists like common criminals, and softening interrogation techniques, is playing with fire
May 2, 2012
The United States hasn't suffered a major terrorist attack in more than a decade. But in some ways that's despite the Obama administration, not because of it.
First, let's give credit where credit is due. Osama bin Laden is dead, dispatched by a Navy SEAL's bullet on the president's orders. And al Qaeda's ranks have been decimated by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, after the administration expanded a targeted-killing program begun by its predecessor.
Sometimes the White House does the right thing in spite of itself. September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will face justice before a military commission. That's because bipartisan pressure forced the administration to walk back its disastrous plan to treat KSM like an ordinary criminal and try him in a civilian courtroom a few blocks from ground zero in New York City.
Similarly, the military continues to hold al Qaeda figures despite the administration's pledge to shutter Guantanamo Bay within a year. President Obama apparently now knows what candidate Obama did not: There is a small cadre of committed terrorists who can't be tried (because the evidence against them is classified and can't be introduced in court) but are too dangerous to release. For them, military detention may be the only realistic choice.
Perhaps the administration's most conspicuous counterterrorism failure is its dismantling of the CIA's interrogation program.
Two days after taking office, the president ordered the CIA to follow the strict interrogation limits in the Army Field Manual. Those rules make it difficult if not impossible for the CIA to use the "good cop, bad cop" routine on terrorists, put them in solitary confinement, threaten them, or even yell at them—the same things police officers do every day in precincts across the country.
Few people want to return to the days of waterboarding. But surely the CIA should be able to use the same techniques on terrorists that cops can use on drug dealers.
Current interrogation policy is also risky from a civil liberties standpoint. If we can't question terrorists effectively, we might simply outsource the job to other countries—including countries that use techniques considerably more brutal than the CIA's harshest methods.
The White House should be commended for its part in keeping al Qaeda at bay. But treating terrorists like common criminals, and ending CIA interrogations, is playing with fire.