- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

The big news in President Bush’s speech Wednesday wasn’t the acknowledgment that the CIA has been operating “secret” prisons where some of the world’s most odious terrorists are detained and interrogated. It was that Mr. Bush remains determined to protect the American people with the very same “tough” (his word) techniques that have worked so well since September 11.

How well? The president gave too many examples to detail here. But, for instance, the capture of senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah within months of September 11 became an intelligence bonanza. During interrogation, Zubaydah disclosed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the attacks and details of another attack that led to additional arrests, including one Ramzi Binalshibh. The latter’s detention led directly to the capture of Mohammed, who in turn gave up even more details of future attacks. In short, the “tough” interrogation techniques used by CIA operatives saved thousands of lives.

The legislation the president sent to Congress for approval would see that these interrogation techniques continue, albeit under the vague standards outlined in the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision, which was made in June. The administration’s solution is to bring accepted techniques in line with the McCain amendment passed last year. We have always felt the McCain amendment to be superfluous, considering that torture is already illegal, but it would do much to appease the more moderate critics of the administration’s interrogation techniques.

The bill would also create a congressionally sanctioned system of military tribunals, or commissions, on the model the administration has been using. There are a few differences, which mostly constitute the granting of rights to detained terrorists that they do not deserve, but on the whole the system would operate as it has. Significantly, it wouldn’t allow terrorists access to evidence against them, which is what a similar Senate bill would allow. To do so, argued the president, would be to undermine the very classified programs that are so essential to keeping Americans safe.

Our view on these commissions is that they should not try to establish too strong a standard for prosecution. What we mean is that terrorists should not be granted the same rights as ordinary criminals, which would make a prosecutor’s case that much harder to prove.

Ironically, the Hamdan decision has given the administration a rare opportunity to exploit. Opponents of the administration’s handling of detained terrorists — which roughly includes civil-libertarian fanatics at the ACLU and a majority of the Democratic caucus — have been able to hammer their points precisely because the White House felt it was not bound by congressional oversight. While the Supreme Court decision has forced Mr. Bush to go to Congress, it has put the Democrats on the spot to explain to the American people why terrorists deserve the same rights as American citizens.

It brings to mind the 2002 debate over the development of a homeland security department. At the time, the Democrats’ big sticking point was that new homeland security employees be allowed to unionize; the administration focused on national security — not the AFL-CIO — leading to the defeat of Democratic Sens. Max Cleland and Jean Carnahan.

It’s still too early to say whether Democrats will make the same mistake. The president has masterfully regained the initiative on national security with a focus on the thousands of terrorists whose sole purpose in life is to kill Americans. Such a focus registers with voters, who should know that five years after September 11 they have a president committed to their safety.

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