America will soon mark the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The replays of burning buildings and piercing screams will bring back jagged memories of that horrific day.
This would be a useful time for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to rethink his decision to go back over cases of CIA prisoner abuse — and consider the political damage it will cause Democrats and their agenda. Unfortunately, Holder seems determined to grandstand on a piece of history that is troubling but over.
He’s already put former Vice President Dick Cheney back on the airwaves. Cheney is again defending “enhanced interrogation techniques,” asserting that they helped prevent other attacks.
In truth, they were unnecessary and did the country more harm than good. Standard interrogation tactics have produced better information. For example, almost all the actionable intelligence drawn from al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah came through traditional interrogation methods, according to Ali Soufan, the Arabicspeaking FBI agent who questioned him. When Zubaydah was later tortured (waterboarded 83 times), he gave up nothing special.
Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair recently wrote: “These techniques hurt our image around the world. The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefits they gave us, and they are not essential to our national security.”
No, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not protect this country. But we must remember that they were approved and used at a crazy time. The terrorist attacks put America in total panic. So when Cheney first said that our intelligence agencies must go to the “dark side” to get at the enemy, few objected.
A few months after 9/11, a former justice department official said on CNN that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were “not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention … given the way in which they have conducted themselves.”
Who was it? It was Eric Holder, deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton.
The 2006 “Frontline” documentary “The Dark Side” puts the post-9/11 period in context. It opens with the smoke-filled sky and frantic calls to New York City’s emergency number. You feel the terror. The documentary then goes into the Cheney program of cooked intelligence data, an unnecessary war in Iraq and the use of torture. But it always recalls the extraordinary trauma that produced such a response.
Did the Bush administration stop some terrorist operations? Perhaps. But the harsh interrogation tactics that Cheney contended “were directly responsible for the fact that for eight years we had no further direct attacks on the United States” would have had little to do with it.
And eight years doesn’t matter much in al-Qaida’s timeline. Al- Qaida waited eight years between its first assault on the World Trade Center and its devastating second try.
Obama should ponder this: Suppose terrorists launch an attack even a fraction of the size of 9/11 as his attorney general was going after people who thought (however incorrectly) that getting very rough with the bad guys produced useful information. (Soufan himself says that going after CIA officials now “would be a mistake.”) Democrats would be toast.
And for no gain. New rules for interrogations are already in place. CIA Director Leon Panetta has forbidden the use of contractors, who were mostly responsible for the abuses. Suspected terrorists are no longer sent to overseas prisons.
No one will be happy. The right is already calling Holder’s investigation a witch hunt, and the left is deeming it inadequate.
The public, meanwhile, will revisit the shock of 9/11 and remember their feelings in the months that followed. Holder should do the same.
©2009 The Providence Journal Co.