It is among the most difficult questions civilized people ask themselves: What are the limits on what you can do to protect yourself against an enemy? In various ways, that is the question being debated now in the courts, the Congress, the administration, and the public.
At stake are issues of morality and the life and death need for information.
On one side are those who advocate the use of "aggressive interrogations" and "stressful questioning techniques" to extract information that could save lives, and might even prevent a bioterror or nuclear attack on an American city.
On the other side are those who call "aggressive interrogations" at the least a first step down a slippery slope, and at worst just a euphemism for "torture."
The issue has been an embarrassing tug-of-war for the U.S. around the nation and the world -- ever since President Bush decided three years ago to deny prisoner of war protections of the Geneva Convention for non-uniformed terrorists taken prisoner.
The Pentagon continues to be haunted by the images and fallout of Abu Ghraib. Recently issued new guidelines on the interrogation of prisoners state that "acts of physical or mental torture are prohibited." The Senate has approved a bill introduced by Republican Senator John McCain to ban what he calls cruel and inhuman treatment of terrorism suspects held in U.S. facilities.
President Bush has threatened to veto the McCain no-torture bill if Congress passes it. Vice President Cheney wants to exclude the CIA from any new law on torture -- in effect giving the CIA license to use extraordinary and aggressive interrogation methods that might be denied to the military or other agencies. This is especially significant given recent published reports alleging that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating al Qaeda captives in secret compounds in Asia and Eastern Europe -- so-called "black sites." And finally, there is another Senate bill aimed at nullifying a Supreme Court decision which gives detainees at Guantanamo the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts.
"Rob, there is a real moral dilemma here. On the one hand, we need intelligence to defeat terrorism and to get that intelligence you need to interrogate suspects and even to break them. On the other hand, we want to do that without violating basic American principles. You oppose the McCain amendment. Why?"
"I oppose it because it is unnecessary, and I think potentially dangerous. We've had about 83,000 detainees in the war on terror. We've had several hundred serious allegations of abuse that have been investigated. That compares favorably to World War II, favorably to Viet Nam, compares favorably even to civilian detention systems. The idea that there is something fundamentally broken that we need the McCain amendment to fix is just wrong."
"One of the biggest difficulties in addressing this subject is the vocabulary. We cannot get past words like torture without thinking of people being put on the rack. It is difficult to get to the point of agreeing on what is permissible. Are we talking about banning any such stressful technique, merely taking them prisoner, putting them in a cell, maybe having a conversation with them, even lighter than what you would see on LAW & ORDER?"
"I don't think there is any reason that the United States can't come up with a set of clearly defined practices which are short of torture, but which are stressful, and which do allow the United States to obtain actionable intelligence in order to defeat terrorists. That seems to me a perfectly sound thing to do, and something that police departments everywhere practice and practice legally."