A Tortured Rationale

The President suggests Cheney is right.

Explaining his decision to put a stop to the CIA’s practice of “enhanced interrogations” of terrorist detainees, President Obama told a press conference Wednesday that “I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees that were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways.” Such as?

In his memoir, former CIA Director George Tenet recalls that “In his initial interrogation by CIA officers, [9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] was defiant. ‘I’ll talk to you guys,’ he said, ‘after I get to New York and see my lawyer.'” Mr. Obama must be under the impression that the CIA used waterboarding as a first resort.

The President also cited Winston Churchill, who, he said, refused to torture German detainees even when “London was being bombed to smithereens.” But Churchill did authorize the firebombing of Hamburg and other cities, the human toll of which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Does Mr. Obama consider that a more ethical approach to our enemies?

Still, the President’s reference to Britain was unwittingly instructive, since the British treatment of IRA detainees during the “troubles” of Northern Ireland was one of the benchmarks the Bush Administration used in distinguishing between harsh treatment and actual torture. A 1978 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found that “stress positions,” “hooding,” and sleep deprivation did not, in fact, constitute torture.

President Obama was then asked whether he had read the memos recently mentioned by former Vice President Dick Cheney as evidence of the effectiveness of enhanced interrogations. Yes he had, he said, immediately adding that “they haven’t been officially declassified and released, and so I don’t want to go into the details of them.” The fact that he didn’t rebut Mr. Cheney’s point about what the interrogations yielded suggests that the memos would prove the former Veep’s point. Mr. Obama should release all the memos and let Americans judge for themselves — though perhaps that’s precisely why he won’t release them.

The President wrapped up by saying “there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.” We sure hope he’ll be able to say the same about the next four years.


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