Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Zeal of Reformers

I am a supporter of torture.

It’s hard to believe, but according to the fevered rants of the torture hysterics (how’s that for a loaded sentence?), I Mr. Pursuit, support torture.

This is non-sense, but my goal today is not to debate what specific acts constitute torture, and what others are simply “enhanced interrogations”. I think as a generally good people with admirable intentions, we Americans get a little squeamish when the curtain on what really happens during war gets drawn back a bit. We would prefer to stay blissfully ignorant about what it takes to win, and this is certainly understandable because war as they say “ain’t pretty”.

What isn’t understandable is why we choose to let our emotions get the better of us in these moments and we respond by voluntarily acting to ensure that our troops fight with one hand tied behind their back. This is an indulgence of our emotions that we as a people can afford because of the quality and strength of our troops, but make no mistake, the price that is paid, and there is always a price, is born by our men and women in uniform.

We have a long history in America of over reacting to the horrors of war, and every time that we’ve done it we have caused trouble for ourselves, and saved no one. My first memory of such an instance was with the Church Committee in the mid-seventies. Frank Church was a well intentioned senator from Kentucky (I think) who was outraged by the “abuses” of the CIA. There is no question that the CIA did some bad things back then, although the truth was never as bad as the alleged horrors made the situation out to be. Yes there were some attempted coups, yes there were some assassinations and yes those things are bad.

The context of these misdeeds was that we were in the process of fighting a global war against communism, which by the way we won, but still, some lines shouldn’t be crossed and new boundaries were required to clarify what we as a country would tolerate. The Church Committee stepped in and wrote new rules that in most views were an over reaction that gutted American intelligence gathering and forced the CIA to move from a physical asset approach to the electronic and satellite approach common today. This was a “cleaner” means of gathering intelligence, but it left gaping wholes in our network, and put us at the mercy of other nations for physical information gathering in whole regions of the world.

One such region was the middle east.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the poor intelligence that led up to the Iraq war, and blame has been aimed squarely at the President. Surely he should receive his share, but missing in the debate has been a discussion about the sourcing of that intelligence. Astute observers have noticed that huge amounts of information, the kind that could only have been gathered by agents on the ground came from secondary sources; primarily French and Israeli. The remainder was from the U.S. in the form of electronic eavesdropping and satellite data. This might in part explain why an idiot such as Joe Wilson was sent to check out the Niger yellow cake claims, instead of an experienced field agent embedded in country.

This is no accident and is a direct result of the constraints that the Church Commission’s rules put on American activities. Even more distressing is the fact that the U.S. had to rely on intelligence sourced from countries that had their own agendas; the French have never put U.S. interests at the top of their list, and one could make a case that the Israelis would have been quite happy to see Saddam removed from the neighborhood. This is the position we put ourselves in.

In the 80’s congress tried to legislate foreign policy in South America with the Boland Amendment, which disallowed funding for intelligence activities in the region. Lucky for the U.S. the Reagan administration tried to find a way around these restrictions and continued to fight the communist beach head in Nicaragua. We emerged from this effort victorious, but several good Americans were not quite as lucky as the rest of us. These folks got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal as a result of their actions being in conflict with congressional meddling. As a result, they were threatened with jail time and the rest of us dealt with an otherwise successful presidency that had to spend two years of its last term completely distracted.

In the ‘90’s Jamie Gorelick, lately of the 9/11 commission, created a wall between the FBI and the CIA that prohibited the sharing of domestic intelligence. While the full damage assessment of this misguided policy isn’t complete, and it will be years before we know exactly the price we paid, it is not an overstatement to say that this policy did nothing to help us prevent the attack on the WTC.

The past 12 months have been dominated by an increasingly shrill debate on the definition of torture and its application against terrorists. While there is no doubt that what occurred at Abu Gahrib was not torture, it also wasn’t acceptable. In fact, this inexcusable breakdown in military discipline has been more damaging, given the follow on developments that have occurred, than any of us could have predicted.

The truth is that very little evidence of any torture has been found by anyone. We’ve heard about waterboarding, which depending on your view might be considered torture, and there have been 5 documented homicides which are under investigation. We’ve also heard about enhanced interrogation techniques that involve sleep deprivation, temperature extremes and physical discomfort, but in most views these do not qualify as a crossing of the line.

Despite the relative lack of facts surrounding this debate, political opportunists, angry gay activists, and liberal bush haters have used the argument to try and damage the president politically and discredit the war effort. The results have been profound. American standing has been damaged, CIA prisoner transports have been revealed and now we seem to be ready to pass a whole new set of regulations that will encumber our troops’ ability to keep themselves safe in the war.

Is it going to far to say that this, more than any act in recent history, is the greatest threat to American security today? I don’t think so. The McCain amendment is an excellent example. On its surface the bill seems benign enough, but the implications for our troops and citizens are profound. Make no mistake; the bill will on day one convey the rights of the Geneva Conventions on terrorists. This is no small policy change when you consider that the Geneva Conventions’ prime goal was to protect civilians, and now these same rules will be used to protect those who kill civilians as their prime goal.

Where will this folly end? We cannot continue to enact these self restricting rules and expect our troops to believe that they have our full confidence and support. We cannot continue to fight those who would kill us, with anything less than the full force of our power. We have seen the price paid when good intentions, driven by an emotional response to war, led us down the wrong path.

Seemingly simple regulations destroyed our ability to collect intelligence in the Middle East. Compartmentalization of information inhibited us from identifying the enemy who walked freely among us. The price we paid on 9/11 was enormous. There really is only two questions left; when will the price finally be too great, and how many will die on that horrible day?

"The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we too are honorable men, devoted to her service."

Richard Helms, then DCI
April, 1971

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