Safety Worth Harsh Interrogation Methods

Monday, 03 Aug 2009 12:52 PM

By Tawfik Hamid

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In an article published Aug. 1 in the Washington Post, CIA Director Leon Panetta warned that the country's premier intelligence agency has been hurt by a climate of recrimination in Congress, stemming from the agency's past practices in treating detained suspected terrorist — especially harsh interrogation methods used with members of al-Qaida.

These techniques were first authorized in mid-March 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. Panetta made it clear that he is increasingly concerned that the focus on the past, especially in Congress, threatens to distract the CIA from its core missions: intelligence collection, analysis, and covert action. He also argued for a truce in the political battles that have arisen — and continue to be waged — over the issue of unduly harsh treatment.

I fully agree with Panetta's views, and would like to add some additional and what I believe to be important dimensions.

We pride ourselves on the moral imperative to avoid inflicting harm, and in this way, it is conceptually repulsive to use harsh methods with our fellow human beings. However, when we deal with people who are prepared — if not eager — to kill millions of innocents, we may need to think somewhat differently. Torture must be clearly distinguished from harsh methods that could be vital to obtain information that is crucial to preventing a catastrophe. This is not simple semantics around the line between what differentiates harsh treatment and torture. We need to evaluate the issue in an objective rather than political or emotional manner.

For example, after the attacks on United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when the CIA was not permitted to use harsh interrogation methods, the U.S. again was severely attacked, this time on its soil on Sept. 11. In comparison, when the CIA used harsh interrogation methods after Sept. 11, the information gained was instrumental in deterring any subsequent attacks, to date.

Of course, it can be argued that several factors, including effective HLS measures in airports, could probably have contributed to protecting the U.S. However, the role of using some harsh interrogation tactics to obtain critical information from terrorists can not be totally excluded.

Politicians who blame the CIA for using such interrogation tactics with terrorists should make their position clear on what they believe to be more important: the temporary suffering of terrorists during interrogation, or the loss of lives and suffering of thousands of innocents (who are likely to be American). In other words, I opine that politicians MUST answer the following question: Would it have been better that the CIA had used these harsh methods with the terrorists immediately after the Kenya and Tanzania attacks in 1998 and prevented Sept. 11?

President Barack Obama has made his viewpoint clear when he addressed the Muslim world on June 4 from Cairo by emphatically stating “. . . it is my first duty as president to protect the American people.”

Currently, the two opposing views side upon whether to use harsh interrogation methods. But, it may be that a third option — the use of sophisticated psychological tactics to get the needed information from the terrorists — must also be considered. As a former jihadist, I can personally testify that some psychological methods that do not incur any form of physical contact or harsh treatment, could be exceedingly effective in both developing a mindset of submission, and ultimately getting needed information, and this can be accomplished in ways that are easier (both practically and morally) than the torture or harsh physical methods that are currently under debate.

The U.S. may well need to consider using these "third option tactics" in the future. In this way, U.S. agencies and those who serve them can protect the lives of the American populous, and at the same time maintain a sense of moral integrity. Frankly, while some may view torture as an ethical violation, I argue that it is equally morally inapt for a government and its agencies not to take proper measures to protect its people.

Dr. Tawfik Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.

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