Ironically, President Obama‘s executive order last week protecting terrorist suspects from waterboarding - the practice of making someone fearful he is about to drown in an effort to induce him to cooperate with interrogators - will spare foreign cutthroats from the very practice that the U.S. military has used on its own men thousands of times as a way of training for deployments in war zones when they might be captured and subjected to such things as waterboarding.
The practice, still in use by trainers, dates back at least as far as the latter stages of the Vietnam war, when Navy pilots, SEALs, and certain others whose missions in Vietnam made them susceptible to capture were waterboarded during harsh training in the California desert, according to one retired Navy commander we talked with. “We were ‘captured’ by instructors serving as enemy interrogators and put in small wooden boxes. I escaped and was re-captured, lashed down to a waterboard, and dragged through the water. They hold your nose and do other things,” he said. “It’s not painful. It’s very effective. You just need to make a quick decision - do I do what they want or risk not breathing ever again. It scares the hell out of you. But painful? No.”
As noted, the military still uses this technique as part of training today. It has been used on a grand total of only three terrorist suspects (all top suspects believed to have highly valuable information) who were waterboarded between the time then-President Bush authorized the practice and 2006, when the CIA ended the use of the method.
President Obama’s executive order requires that interrogations of terrorist suspects by U.S. intelligence agencies be limited to gentler, non-coercive techniques specified in the Army Field Manual, which deals with legal combatants, not terrorists. The guidelines for such techniques, according to Mr. Obama’s nominee to serve as national intelligence director, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, must be kept secret so that America’s enemies can’t train to withstand them, he said at his confirmation hearing. But Adm. Blair also said that, under President Obama, the U.S. intelligence community would no longer engage in waterboarding. This marks a major break with the policy of the Bush administration. Last week, Mr. Bush’s intelligence chief, Mike McConnell, said publicly that the CIA would be hamstrung if it abided only by the Army Field Manual in conducting interrogations, and that this would put American national security at risk.
Adm. Blair has hinted that the military may revise the Field Manual to permit additional interrogation techniques, and the Obama administration executive order includes creation of a “special task force” that may recommend additional methods. The task force, charged with reporting to the president in 180 days, will study whether the techniques in the Army Field Manual are adequate to permit U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain the information necessary to do their job of protecting the United States. In other words, “it is possible that the CIA will regain some measure of interrogation flexibility as a result of this study,” says Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, an expert on legal issues in the war on terror, “but that’s down the line, if it happens at all.”
So, for at least the next six months, the Obama executive order is a huge victory for groups that obdurately oppose permitting the intelligence community to use interrogation techniques that go beyond those specified in the Field Manual. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory so far as the safety and security of the American people are concerned. Adm. McConnell earlier this month told a television interviewer that if the Obama administration asks him whether CIA interrogators should be limited to using the methods specified in the Army Field Manual, “My response is going to be, ‘The Army Field Manual was created for a purpose: That’s for 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds, battlefield conditions, fast- moving, do it consistent with American values, with exactly the rules that the Geneva Convention has spelled out for the protection of a legal combatant.’ ” But imposing these limits on highly trained CIA interrogators who are trying to obtain information from “a hardened terrorist who is willing to die for his cause, who wants to have mass destruction right here in New York, who will not talk to you or give you information” could endanger American lives, Adm. McConnell said. He added that interrogation techniques like waterboarding (which the United States has not used since 2003, except as a training technique on our own forces) have produced most of the intelligence information from terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that saved lives “in the early years after 9/11.”
In an interview with The Washington Times last year, CIA Director Michael Hayden explained why his agency needs to retain the option of using unorthodox terrorist interrogation techniques. Limiting intelligence agents to techniques specified in the Army Field Manual, Gen. Hayden emphasized, could limit the agency’s ability to gain vital information in the future. All CIA “high-value detainees” are unlawful combatants, or terrorists, he said. By contrast, the Army had more than 20,000 captives at the time, nearly all of whom were “lawful combatants.” While the Army is seeking “transient battlefield information” from its detainees, Gen. Hayden said, “we’re trying to get strategic intelligence from the highest-value detainees about imminent threats to the homeland, in a population that is exclusively unlawful combatants” (in other words, terrorists whose own actions disqualify them from protections of the Geneva Conventions).
By affording these terrorists protections they do not legally deserve - and that don’t involve maiming, mutilation and other legitimate torture - Mr. Obama is taking a very calculated risk. By appeasing his left-wing base, he is potentially placing millions of innocent Americans in danger.