Friday, September 15, 2006

President Bush wasted no time yesterday responding to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s passage of legislation that could damage the ability of intelligence agencies to obtain information from terrorist detainees. On Thursday, four Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Chairman John Warner and John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins — joined the committee’s Democrats in passing flawed legislation governing detainee treatment that fails to respond to Mr. Bush’s critical request. The lawmakers must clarify what interrogators can and cannot do when interrogating suspected jihadists.

Yesterday, the president suggested that the committee’s refusal to define what interrogation methods were permissible under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions could force the CIA to shut down a program that has gained invaluable intelligence about al Qaeda. Mr. Bush noted, for example, that Common Article 3 includes language barring “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” of someone who is being interrogated. “That’s very vague. What does that mean?” the president asked. He warned that intelligence professionals on the front lines of the war could not do their job interrogating detainees if Congress refused “to put clarity in the law.” Congress, Mr. Bush added, “has a decision to make” about whether it wanted the program to continue — something the Senate Armed Services Committee has now put in jeopardy.

Given all that the program has accomplished, it would be difficult to imagine a more irresponsible decision on the part of Congress. As Mr. Bush pointed out in a speech earlier this month, American forces captured Abu Zubaydah — a top bin laden aide who ran terrorist camps in which some of the September 11 hijackers trained — several months after the September 11 attacks. Zubaydah, who was wounded on the battlefield, survived only because of medical treatment from the CIA, After he recovered, Zubaydah refused to cooperate with U.S. interrogators. So, the CIA, used an unspecified “alternative” set of interrogation methods approved by Justice Department lawyers. Eventually, Zubaydah cracked and provided information that enabled the military to prevent an al Qaeda terrorist attack inside the United States.

Zubaydah also provided information that lead to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Binalshibh, who helped organize the September 11 attacks. They also led authorities to the capture of the leader al Qaeda’s south Asian affiliate, Hambali, and 17 operatives. When he learned that his terror cell had been broken up, Hambali acknowledged that the terrorists were being prepared for new attacks on the United States, probably using airplanes, Mr. Bush added.

This is just a partial listing of what the CIA has learned as a result of the CIA program that the Senate Armed Services Committee has put at risk.

But the concerns expressed by Mr. Bush and CIA Director Michael Hayden have failed to budge Mr. McCain. On Thursday, the Arizona Republican disparaged Mr. Hayden’s legitimate concerns about the Senate bill as an attempt to “protect his reputation at the risk of America’s reputation.” It’s a cheap shot. Mr. McCain should explain why he is endangering a vital interrogation program that has saved many American lives.

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