Pakistani tribesmen carry the coffin of a person allegedly killed in a US drone attack. (Photo by THIR KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
On Monday John Brennan, the President’s adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, popped up at the Woodrow Wilson Center to give a major policy speech on the “ethics and efficacy” of drone use.
Brennan’s argument had two main planks: That drones work and that their use is entirely legal. Both claims deserve close examination because neither is quite as simple as it seems.
In a classic rhetorical device Brennan threw out perhaps the most contentious aspect of his analysis as though it was a given, stating that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces.”
Since the killing of Osama bin Laden last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the torture supporters have been out in full force to credit the success to Bush Administration policies such as torture.
Retired General Michael Hayden wrote in the Wall Street Journal that to deny that waterboarding provided important intelligence information is the equivalent of being a birther. And Retired Army Major General Patrick Brady, a Medal of Honor Recipient from Vietnam, argued that waterboarders are heroes in a recent Op-Ed in the San Antonio online forum. They join the ranks of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Marc Thiessen, Michael Mukasey, and, of course, the former President himself, George W. Bush.
But I challenge you to search all the articles and interviews done by these men for three key phrases: 1) World War II interrogators, 2) Long-Term, and 3) George Washington. You won’t find them. And there’s a reason why.
Politicians from across the political spectrum in the United States have been quick to hail the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US special forces as an act of justice. The operation may have been many things, but the exercise of the due process of law it was not.
The Obama administration has yet to set out the legal grounds under which the operation in Pakistan was conducted, with senior officials characterizing it variously as an act of national self-defense or a military engagement. From a legal standpoint neither framework is a particularly good fit.
What the operation to ‘kill or capture’ bin Laden resembles most closely is the kind of targeted assassination mission frequently undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces and this begs the question, has the US now fully embraced a similar policy?
McCain, who was tortured repeatedly by the North Vietnamese as a Prisoner of War, compellingly referenced his own experience of undergoing coercive interrogation noting that:
“the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering.”
It is pretty hard to argue the toss with someone who has actually been through it for real.
Moreover, unlike Messers Thiessen, Hayden and Mukasey, rather than rushing into print, Senator McCain also took the time to establish the facts about the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout – indeed, in doing so, he all but called the former Bush administration Attorney General a liar:
In 1958 a communist French newspaper editor sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence called Henri Alleg published “The Question”, a short account of his interrogation under torture by French paratroopers:
“The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments.
I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation… three times I again experienced this insupportable agony. In extremis, they let me get my breath back while I threw up the water. That last time, I lost consciousness.”
Despite being water-boarded, subjected to electric shocks, burned, beaten, and drugged with pentothal, Henri Alleg did not give his captors the information they were after – the name of the individual who had hidden him from the authorities.