Panetta is outraged by the attorney general's volte-face. He argued against the appointment of a special prosecutor. Now he is being undercut by the very people in his own party who were supposed to be his major supporters in a fiendishly difficult transition. He knows he must deal with the fact that the CIA's operational abilities have now been undermined by the attorney general, new rules, and hostile lawyers. How will his agency successfully interrogate uncooperative jihadists, like self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who remained silent when questioned without physical coercion? After the waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and psychological coercion suggesting that harm may come to one of his family members, however, he became "the most prolific" of the high-value detainees in CIA custody, providing information that helped lead to the arrest of terrorists and to the revelation of other plots, an intelligence bonanza that is estimated to have saved thousands of lives.
This included intelligence on the planned hijacking of one aircraft flying to Heathrow Airport and another that was going to crash into the tallest building in California, a West Coast version of the World Trade Center attack.
Such an approach is consistent with the "ticking bomb" doctrine, which offers common-sense guidance in the war against terrorism. It means that if a bomb is about to explode, coercive methods are justified against the captured bomber and his accomplices to save the lives of innocent civilians. That is the way we viewed the world after 9/11; the American people expected their government would take the gloves off to deal with terrorists who had done immense damage on the soil of the United States and planned still more.
Can we imagine that people who were prepared to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, holy warriors who live to die and kill the infidels as an expression of their religious faith, would yield to noncoercive interrogations of very limited psychological impact? Political leaders were scrambling to respond to a unique situation as best they could. Nobody knew how many additional attacks might take place. People were making quick judgments, some of which were undoubtedly wrong. Surely, this should not taint those public servants in our intelligence services who did their duty in critical and confusing times pursuant to the legal guidance provided, should it?
The CIA no longer operates black sites and no longer employs enhanced interrogation techniques. It has to acquire the information and intelligence essential to the protection of the country by other means. It has to take risks and do that in a climate where telephone taps and monitoring of money transfers are now made public by the media, thus making everything vulnerable to a steady stream of congressional and legal objections.
We count on the CIA to be the first line of defense in our war against al Qaeda and to deter future attacks. But are the thousands of men and women in the agency now to be led to understand that they had better not do anything remotely controversial on behalf of America's safety? Even if they have the permission of lawyers and the sanction of this administration, what if the next administration feels different? All bets are off. The agency will be pushed back into a risk-averse pre-September 11 mentality.
Something is awry here. Must we preclude U.S. personnel from killing terrorists with sniper rifles or car bombs? We don't have a problem with the CIA and Defense Department hunting down specific terrorist leaders and then killing those leaders with unmanned drones or Predator missiles, even though there is a possibility of civilian casualties. The Predator strikes in Afghanistan have killed many of the Taliban leaders near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Without these attacks, the situation would certainly have become much worse in the region. Surely, there is an analogy here to what the CIA must do in the shadowy war against terrorists who do not wear military garb.