Every few days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada) puts out the “Bin Laden Tick Tock,” jabbing President Bush for his failure to capture the terrorist leader six years after 9/11’
At the same time, though, Democrats seem determined to curtail Bush’s ability to thwart terrorists – by banning harsh interrogations, restricting his ability to tap overseas terrorist communications and expanding legal rights for terrorist detainees.
They also have tried repeatedly to force Bush to hastily withdraw from Iraq, even though Osama Bin Laden himself declared it to be the central front in Al Qaeda’s war on America.
Democratic rhetoric commonly alleges that Bush endeavors to maintain a “climate of fear” in the country in order to expand executive power and curtail civil liberties.
As Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., put it during debate Monday on terrorist surveillance, “this is an administration that scares its people, but does not protect them ... and tries to take away the rights of its people.”
Yet the recent disclosures of former CIA agent John Kiriakou support the administration’s contention that the harsh interrogation – specifically, “waterboarding” – of Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda in 2002 furnished information that “disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks” and “saved American lives.”
As The Washington Post reported on Dec. 9, congressional leaders were given about 30 secret briefings on interrogations – with detailed descriptions of waterboarding – and only one member of Congress objected to the procedure.
In fact, according to two unidentified U.S. officials quoted by the Post – and not countered by anyone – “at least two lawmakers” at one briefing “asked the CIA to push harder.”
The basic difference between Bush and most Democrats is that he believes that Al Qaeda presents a continuing menace to the United States, while Democrats seem to believe that his overreaching is a greater threat.
So Bush has vowed to veto an intelligence bill requiring that the CIA adhere to interrogations authorized in the Army Field Manual – which excludes waterboarding – but all the Democratic presidential candidates promise that, if elected, they will ban the procedure.
As is now widely understood, waterboarding is a technique whereby a suspect is held lying down, has a cloth put over his mouth and has water poured on his face to create the feeling of drowning.
For certain, it’s a tactic that should be employed rarely, not routinely, only in urgent cases involving a high-value target believed to have information necessary to prevent imminent attack.
But, in those cases, it should be permitted if undertaken by trained CIA interrogators and authorized at a high level. Already, it is a part of the training undergone by U.S. pilots and special operations troops to show them what they may encounter if captured.
“Everybody breaks,” one member of Congress who has undergone the training told me.
In the case of Abu Zubayda, a top aide to Osama Bin Laden, “breaking” took less than 35 seconds, after which “he answered every question,” according to Kiriakou.
Kiriakou says that he now regards waterboarding as “torture” and should be discontinued. Moreover, a number of interrogation experts say that it is counterproductive and that information can better be elicited by intensive relationship-building with subjects.
But Kiriakou told Fox News, “I’m sorry to say these are not guys that you can sit across the table with and play chess and convince them that you’re friendly enough that they’ll give you the information.
“It just doesn’t work like that. ... These guys hate us more than they love life. So the idea that they are going to give you actionable intelligence just because they like your face or you’re a nice guy ... just isn’t going to happen.”
Kiriakou, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others approved of the use of waterboarding in 2002, but now want to ban it because they evidently think that the threat of terrorism has passed – despite recent attacks in Algeria and attempts only a year ago to either blow up jets bound for the United States or use them to attack targets in the country.
Democrats also are reluctant to give Bush the authority he’s requested to upgrade terrorist surveillance techniques to keep pace with technology.
Ever since The New York Times disclosed in 2005 that Bush had authorized tapping terrorist communications overseas and into the United States without seeking a warrant, the program has been popularly dubbed a “domestic surveillance program” when it is no such thing.
There is no known instance of abuse of the program – such as Nixon-style tapping of domestic critics – yet on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., charged that “millions of Americans have had their private communications monitored” under the program.
The Bush administration wants to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to permit tapping into contacts between terrorist suspects overseas when the communications are routed through the United States.
Among other restrictions, Democrats want to bar warrantless tapping of U.S. citizens overseas – a right not extended to criminal suspects under current law.
There’s no question that U.S. intelligence activities need Congressional supervision – and that incidents such as the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of waterboarding interrogations need thorough investigation.
Still, an unfortunate history is repeating itself. In the 1970s, disclosure of CIA misdeeds led to restrictions on the agency that weakened its ability to gather intelligence. Now, sensational newspaper charges about “domestic surveillance” and routine “torture,” coupled with Bush-hatred among Democrats, is inspiring new restrictions.
The problem is that, as Reid noted in his last “tick tock,” Bin Laden is still “at large.” He’d like to pull off another 9/11 – or worse – and suspicion of Bush should not cause Congress to let America's guard down.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)