Torture Nostalgia

As the Christmas bombing illustrates yet again, we live in a dangerous world. Al Qaeda has had a resurgence in Yemen, where radicalism flourishes and a weak state lacks the ability, if not the will, to prevent it. Young Somalis disappear from the streets in Minnesota and are reported to be training in Somalia, an ungoverned Hobbesian stew of fundamentalism, piracy and poverty. The challenges become ever more complex and the tools to combat these problems need to be equally sophisticated.

Rather than focusing on the evolving nature of the problem or systemic ideas for addressing it, the Wall Street Journal yearns for the Cheneyesque simplicity of the coercive interrogation, the thinly veiled euphemism for what is now broadly conceded to have been a program of torture. The Journal notes that 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "is precisely the kind of illegal enemy combatant who should be interrogated first" and laments that "he can only be interrogated like any other defendant in a criminal case," that is, under the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution. The editorial notes archly, "The jihadists don't seem to like Americans any better because we're closing down Guantanamo."

It is hard to know how to start to unpack such a fatuous approach to the problem of coercive interrogation and terrorism. First, as even President Bush maintained (while his administration did the opposite), torture is always wrong and the United States Government should not torture, waterboard, or interrogate beyond what is permitted by law. Second, coercive interrogation is widely considered in any event to have accomplished very little and in any event, far less than standard operating procedure of the F.B.I., which relies on trust building rather than abuse. Third, Guantanamo is being closed not because we want jihadists to "like Americans," but because the attempt to create a legal black hole there was unsuccessful, unnecessary and counterproductive. Jihadists will never like us, although there is no doubt that the legacy of eight years of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and black sites creates a far more sympathetic environment in which jihadists can move about civilian populations with less likelihood of detection.

There is far more that can usefully be accomplished to stop attacks on American soil than waterboarding a 23-year-old Nigerian rich kid who was taught in Yemen to strap explosives to his groin. The failure here, as well as with the Fort Hood massacre, was not a failure of interrogation, but, yet again, a monumental failure of bureaucracy. Major Nisan Hadal was on the radar screen of law enforcement six months before his attack, praising suicide bombers. His medical presentations at Walter Reed were bizarre, proseltyzing rants rather than case evaluations. The bureaucracy at Walter Reed kicked the problem down the road, arranging the transfer to Fort Hood. Similarly, bureaucratic processes prevented effective action against the Northwest bomber. Abdulmutallab's name was placed on a long list; he bought a one way ticket for cash; he checked no bags; notations were made that would prevent him from renewing his visa. But surely there should have been sufficient information sorting and searching so that his current visa could be canceled; his status on the watch list. as a one-way, cash paying Nigerian national whose passport presumably showed a Yemeni visa would have at least triggered extra screening. We spend billions employing TSA staff to supervise grandmothers taking their shoes off, but we are not trying intelligently to integrate, process and act on information that identifies the people we truly need to worry about.

Microwave detectors, available at Schipol airport in Amsterdam, would likely have detected explosives. The detectors are not used on passengers flying to the United States, allegedly because of privacy concerns. Surely, it would be cheaper and less intrusive to make people on watch lists go through an explosives screening device rather than using low tech, high volume systems that simply react to the last threat rather than anticipate the next one.

There can be little doubt that these attacks will bring the waterboarders back out of the closet and the self-satisfied "I told you sos" of Bush era apologists are already starting to echo. There is no doubt that the outrage and fear of an attack like the Northwest Airlines attempted bombing stir urge to retaliate violently against someone with so little regard for human life. Torture is ineffective and anathema, but these dark impulses are ubiquitous and powerful. The Obama administration has to move forward to intelligent 21st century technological solutions not backwards to the rack and screw.