PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. They are 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.
What's 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."
PRESIDENT BUSH: We do not 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 which state that "acts of physical or mental torture are prohibited."
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Abuse of prisoner harms, not helps us in the war on terror.
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.
PAUL GIGOT: With me to discuss all this are: Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Editorial Board; Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board; and Rob Pollock, a member of the board who specializes in security issues. Rob, there's a real moral dilemma here. On the one hand, we need intelligence to defeat terrorism and to get that intelligence you need to interrogate them 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?
ROB POLLOCK: I oppose it because it's unnecessary, and I think potentially dangerous. It's unnecessary in the sense that, look, John McCain says the reason we need this amendment limiting what our interrogators can do is because Abu Ghraib was a result of confusion about which interrogation techniques were committed. Well now we've had nine courts marshall dealing with the people who actually committed the atrocities that were in the Abu Ghraib photos. None of those nine courts marshall found that the abuses were even related to interrogation, never mind confusion about interrogation techniques.
And also it's important to remember that over all, the rate of detainee abuse -- we've had about 83 thousand detainees on the war on terror. We've had several hundred serious allegations of abuse that have been investigated. That's a pretty good rate. That compares favorably to earlier conflicts in which the US was involved, favorably to World War II, favorably to Viet Nam, compares favorably even to civilian detention systems. So the idea that there's something fundamentally broken that we need the McCain amendment to fix is just wrong.
PAUL GIGOT: Well cruel and inhuman treatment, as the senator describe it, is already banned. No American can practice that sort of thing. What instead they have sanctioned are certain so-called "stress techniques," things like exposure to heat and cold, sleep deprivation, making them stay in one position for a very long time. Those things have been allowed, but a lot of people object to those as somehow humiliating and even torture.
ROB POLLOCK: They have been allowed, but the fact of the matter is there's not much of that going on right now, because of the chilling effect that the Abu Ghraib scandal and political initiatives like the McCain amendment have caused. And from what my military sources tell me, it's caused us to have a real shortage of actionable intelligence on the battlefield.
BRET STEPHENS: Well part of the problem that I think we're dealing with is that the definition of torture has been expanded and used for tendentious reasons, so that what you or I or most people on the street would automatically think of as torture -- basically putting people on the rack -- is not always what's being described or what's being alleged of what the United States is doing.
For example, there's this term called "psychological torture." Well what exactly is psychological torture and how is it meaningfully different from the kind of good cop, bad cop routines that you see on shows every day? There's a group of psychologists in Cambridge, Massachusetts who say, well this is terrible, the Bush Administration is trying to break these prisoners using psychological techniques. Well, of course they're trying to break these prisoners. We're not trying to enhance their self esteem. We're trying to get information out of them.
DAN HENNINGER: Bret's making a good point. 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, or electrodes being fashioned to them. And that makes it difficult to get to the point of agreeing on what is permissible. In other words, are we talking about banning any such stressful technique, simply not doing any of this sort of thing, 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, for instance? Or are we talking about allowing a certain set of techniques to get information out of these people?
PAUL GIGOT: Well what about the technique called "water boarding," which has been much in the news, which is strapping a prisoner to a board and giving him the appearance, through using water and other materials, to give him a sense that he's drowning, suffocating. That is used, has been used, we believe, against people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of 9/11, to get information. That goes close to the line, Rob.
ROB POLLOCK: It does go close to the line. But it's important to remember, as you said, that water boarding is almost never used. The idea that we're picking up people on the street and water boarding them is preposterous. It has maybe been used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu-Zubaida, and that's about it. And we know for a fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu-Zubaida have given us information that has saved American lives. We know that for a fact. And if we had to water board them to get that information, that's okay with me.
PAUL GIGOT: There's an argument by Mark Bowden, who is the author of BLACK HAWK DOWN, and he's given a lot of thought to these issues. And he's basically said that what we ought to do is go ahead and pass the McCain amendment, express our national revulsion against this sort of thing. But the truth is, sometimes maybe you do have to practice torture or some of these, even torture, because if you're trying to prevent a nuclear attack on an American city you might have to do that. And his argument is, in those cases we ought to just wink-wink and say, look, you had to do it in this case, and so let it happen.
BRET STEPHENS: Yeah, I don't think hypocrisy is necessary a sound policy, setting out one -- setting out something as a standard and then basically acknowledging that in some cases you're going to have to break it. I don't think it's sound morally, and I don't think it's sound pragmatically because at the end of the day it's hard to imagine that there's going -- it's easy to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which that happens, and then next thing you know it's on the front page of a major American daily, the president of the United States broke the law in extraordinary circumstances.
I don't think there's 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.
ROB POLLOCK: And you know, why should the guy who was interrogating Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have to worry about whether the jury he eventually goes before is going to have the same sense of where the exception should be as John McCain? Setting up hypocrisy as the moral ideal here, as Bret said, is wrong.
BRET STEPHENS: There's another issue, which is that as you widen the definition of torture, and as the sorts of things that the United States can do in order to extract information -- as all sorts of things diminish you have to resort to other kinds of alternatives. What are some of those alternatives? One of them is rendition, passing on -- say you have a Syrian suspect in your hands, well, you can't really get any information out of him, you can't subject him to stressful techniques, so you send him to Syria, right? Well that isn't necessarily morally a better technique, a better thing to do.
Second thing -- you simply take lots of people prisoner, and you hold them forever. That also isn't a better alternative.
PAUL GIGOT: We don't have a lot of time, Dan, but that rendition does take place, and right now that strikes me as something that is maybe more offensive, certainly more morally problematic than anything the CIA might do.
DAN HENNINGER: Well, the problem here is context. Yes, it's morally problematic. But blowing up a mosque, as happened at the end of this week in Iraq, killing 76 people, flying loaded airliners into 108 storey buildings, is very morally problematic. We are not talking about the criminal justice system inside the United States where you worry about Fourth Amendment abuses and so forth. You're talking about people who are slaughtering civilians.