July 15, 2004,
Remember this iron law of intelligence: You cannot connect the dots until you collect the dots.
The shrill wrangling over the treatment of insurgents and terrorists detained in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has taken a frightening but predictable turn. Restrictions on interviewing techniques surprise, surprise have hindered intelligence gathering.
"Everything's on hold," said a former CIA official aware of the agency's suspension of extraordinary interrogation tactics. "The whole thing has been stopped until we sort out whether we are sure we're on legal ground," the ex-spy added in the June 27 Washington Post.
Mutilation and permanent injury appropriately remain verboten. But more benign techniques also are up in the air. Sleep deprivation, "stress positions," and noise and light bombardment are on hold, as are efforts to trick prisoners into thinking they are being questioned by non-American agents.
Meanwhile, military interrogators still may challenge prisoners' egos, but only with the prior approval of the Defense secretary. Perhaps, leaving their pillows unfluffed will make them sing.
Most clues that U.S. investigators have extracted from captured terrorists and militants remains classified. However, ample evidence demonstrates why this life-and-death information must flow freely:
Pakistan's January 2002 surrender of Libyan al-Qaeda leader Ibn al-Shayk al-Libi to the CIA revealed a plot to bomb America's embassy in Yemen. Al-Libi also ratted out Abu Zubaida, a top September 11 conspirator.
After his March 2002 capture in Pakistan, Zubaida helped the CIA find al Qaeda leaders Ramzi bin-al-Shibh in Pakistan, Amar al-Faruq in Indonesia, Rahim al-Nashiri in Kuwait, and Muhammad al Darbi in Yemen. The Washington Post's Dana Priest reports that Zubaida had been shot in the groin as he was arrested; the CIA selectively offered him painkillers until his cooperation improved.
Bin-al-Shibh, in turn, squealed on Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The Justice Department calls him al Qaeda's "lead operational planner and organizer." The March 24, 2003, Time explained that Mohammed had "given U.S. interrogators the names and descriptions of about a dozen key al-Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting terrorist attacks on America and other western countries."
Mohammed and Zubaida reportedly informed on Jose Padilla/Abdullah al Muhajir, the Brooklyn-born Muslim convert better known as "the dirty bomber." Beyond his dreams of triggering a radioactive blast on American soil, Justice says Padilla also spent time in al Qaeda camps "learning how to prepare and seal an apartment in order to obtain the highest explosive yield" after filling it with natural gas and a detonator.
Mohammed reportedly endured "water boarding," a CIA technique in which he was tied to a plank and dunked in a mock-drowning exercise. Pretty? No, but a blazing apartment building with tenants leaping from windows in their pajamas is not especially elegant, either.
A Guantanamo interrogator named "Tom" told CBS's 60 Minutes II that al-Qaeda prisoners there have offered "keys to the network, how it works, who was involved, how it fundraises, how it recruits, how it travels. Ongoing operations, imminent attacks on a number of occasions."
While Americans debate whether it's kosher for interrogators to play "good cop-bad cop" games with detainees (this method requires Pentagon approval), Islamist thugs continue a beheading campaign reminiscent of Robespierre. As assorted Bush bashers fret about hoods on the heads of prisoners, Muslim fanatics most assuredly concoct fresh ways to exterminate us infidels with dynamite, if we are lucky, and Sarin nerve gas or uranium, if we are not.
America fights the "war on terror," not the "luncheon on terror." Like its predecessors, this will feature ugly moments we rather would forget. But these are meant to forestall far uglier scenarios, such as the transformation of citizens into body parts and workplaces into mass graves. To forget this is to invite doom. President Bush cannot remind us of this often enough.
Tomorrow may bring another spectacular attack that atomizes Americans or our allies by the hundreds or thousands. If so, precisely the same critics who scream, "Bloody murder!" at interrogators who may have made al Qaeda assassins and Baathist butchers stand in place uncomfortably for hours, will holler at President Bush: "Why didn't you connect the dots?" One hopes they will possess the decency to check first beneath their fingernails for the spattered blood of innocents.