- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush vowed to apply traditional American values to make the United States “a kinder and gentler nation” — using our strength as “a force for good.” Twenty years later, that strength has been weakened by a faltering economy and the challenges of fighting two wars.

But Mr. Bush recognized that “kinder and gentler” did not always apply, particularly in dealing with Saddam Hussein. Yet, today, in the face of our greatest challenge — Islamic extremism — we choose to take a “kinder and gentler” approach toward fighting a brutal enemy’s ideology. This is underscored by the House Intelligence Committee’s June 17 announcement that it has launched a probe into the CIA’s handling of its al Qaeda leadership assassination program.

The investigation is to focus on whether the agency improperly withheld information from lawmakers.

The secret program — to use assassins to kill or capture senior terrorist leaders — was initiated eight years ago in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks but never got beyond the discussion phase. Upon first learning of the program a month ago, CIA Director Leon Panetta immediately terminated it and briefed Congress.

Almost two decades ago, as I interrogated a senior Iraqi military officer captured during Desert Storm, he made an astute observation about Saddam Hussein. Comparing his brutal leader to a serpent, he said one cannot kill a snake without severing its head — a concept well understood within the Muslim world. It also should be well understood within the Western world in dealing with Islamic extremist leaders.

During the 20th century, the West confronted two kinds of leaders in the conduct of warfare.

There were civilian leaders who, as heads of state, were not involved in war-fighting decisions, which were left to their military. For this reason, leaders such as Japan’s Emperor Hirohito were never personally targeted during hostilities.

But there also were heads of state who, by their personal actions in taking a direct role in planning and implementing military and/or terrorist operations, catapulted themselves onto the battlefield, becoming “fair game.” Such targets have included Adolf Hitler during World War II, Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm and Moammar Gadhafi during his terrorist campaign of the 1980s.

There should be no doubt al Qaeda’s leadership falls into the latter category. Its terrorist leaders represent the head of the snake and, as such, will continue to strike unless the head is severed.

Precisely for this reason, the leadership of both al Qaeda and the Taliban have been targeted for attack by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These attacks, authorized during President George W. Bush’s watch, have been continued on President Obama’s watch because they have killed at least a dozen leaders.

The attacks so unnerved Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud that in May he threatened a devastating attack upon the United States if they continued. Undoubtedly, the fact that a drone, flying thousands of feet high where it cannot be seen or heard by terrorist leaders, can silently strike at any time has caused them some sleepless nights.

But how is a program targeting terrorist leadership for assassination by drone any different from the CIA’s assassination program now targeted by the House for investigation? While Congress undoubtedly was briefed on the terrorist-slaying drone program before implementation, it is doubtful a briefing was done before an effective implementation plan was firmly in place. Similarly, no effective implementation plan has yet been structured for the CIA’s assassination program; therefore, no briefing is yet required.

While it may give politicians a good feeling to launch this congressional probe into the CIA’s program, they need to understand the downside. The 1976 hearings chaired by Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho to investigate domestic surveillance and other illegal activities by U.S. intelligence agencies had a chilling effect on legal intelligence and counterintelligence operations. As such, it eventually impacted upon our ability 25 years later to read the tea leaves in time to be forewarned about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Though there were some excesses by U.S. intelligence agencies in the 1970s, it is critical that we also recognize that congressional probes, by their very nature, impact on future effectiveness by limiting decisions to undertake legal activities. That probably is why the CIA’s assassination program existed conceptually but not in practice. The link between concept and practice is a plan for implementation. Again, none yet existed for this program; therefore, neither did a duty to advise Congress.

A “kinder and gentler” approach has pampered Islamic extremist prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, too, creating a country-club atmosphere in which they have gained an average 20 pounds each (one in excess of 100 pounds) because of the “good life.”

Hearings were held there recently for Sept. 11 suspects. One, Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, made a mockery of court proceedings by conducting himself inappropriately. This is a suspect to whom the “kinder and gentler” approach has gone to a ridiculous extreme, as his guard carried with him a pillow to place on Hawsawi’s chair for his viewing comfort. As Hawsawi was led back out of the courtroom, his guard followed with pillow in tow.

Our “kinder and gentler” approach toward terrorists is making it difficult for Americans to comprehend that we are a nation at war fighting an enemy whose ultimate goal is our total annihilation.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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