Senators who say they may not support the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general because he won’t say whether he thinks waterboarding constitutes torture have concocted a flap over a non-issue.
Despite a drumbeat of media reports about it, the CIA has used waterboarding as an interrogation tactic on only three terrorists and has not used the technique since 2003, Newsmax has learned.
As normally defined, torture is the infliction of severe pain. While waterboarding causes fear because it simulates drowning, it is painless.
Since the media began disclosing that the CIA was using waterboarding, the technique has become virtually useless. If terrorists know they will be subjected to fake drowning, they will not respond to it. Moreover, asking Mukasey to venture a legal opinion on a still-classified technique is not unlike asking a judge — which he once was — to rule on a case before both sides have presented their arguments and evidence.
After his recent confirmation hearing, all 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent Mukasey a letter expressing alarm that he refused to repudiate waterboarding. In a letter responding to questions from those Democrats, Mukasey promised to review the interrogation methods used by the government to ensure they comply with the law.
He said if he were to find anything illegal he would “rescind or correct any legal opinion of the Department of Justice that supports use of the technique.”
That was not good enough for Democrats and a few like-minded Republicans. Among others, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have said their support for his nomination could depend on Mukasey’s response to the waterboarding question.
Aside from the legalities, the CIA does not believe outright torture produces reliable results and has never used it. Scaring prisoners with waterboarding is another matter.
The technique was used in interrogating Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden’s field commander or chief of operations, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot.
In both cases, these and other coercive techniques — like subjecting prisoners to frigid temperatures or forcing them to stand for hours — have worked and have led to a takedown of other key al-Qaida operatives when they were planning more attacks.
Coercive techniques were first used on Zubaydah when he stopped cooperating.
“We weren’t getting very much from him at all,” Robert Grenier, the former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told me for my book "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack," which comes out Nov. 13. “And that’s when we began the process of putting together a properly focused interrogation process. It was refined a good deal subsequently, but he was the test.” [Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book — Go here now.]
Before they were employed, the Justice Department reviewed the interrogation procedures and determined that they were legally permissible. As the interrogation of Zubaydah and other detained terrorists progressed, the CIA briefed the chairs, ranking members, and majority and minority staff directors of the House and Senate intelligence committees on the details of the procedures used.
Before confronting a terrorist, each interrogator was given 250 hours of specialized training. In addition to the interrogators, detainees were questioned by experts with years of experience in studying and tracking al Qaida. That expertise allowed them to fire rapid questions at detainees, to follow up on their answers, and to quickly verify their truthfulness.
More than 70 percent of the human intelligence about terrorism in the most recent National Intelligence Estimate came from interrogations of detainees. Contrary to hysterical press reports, fewer than 100 terrorists have been detained in CIA facilities since the program began in the spring of 2002.
Fewer than a third of them have been subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.
Congress has twice had the chance to ban waterboarding but has twice declined to do so. In the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress only barred “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment.
While saying he is against aggressive interrogation, even Sen. John McCain has acknowledged that in extremis a president might have to approve it.
Thus, members of Congress who were briefed initially on the technique and who have since declined to outlaw the practice want to have their cake and eat it, too: They want to continue to garner air time by sanctimoniously denouncing Mukasey for not saying waterboarding is illegal while doing nothing themselves to outlaw waterboarding just in case the CIA ever believes the technique should be used to prevent a terrorist attack.
Aside from alerting al-Qaida to methods used to interrogate them, the disclosure of secret techniques and so-called secret prisons has impaired cooperation with the CIA by key foreign countries. According to Grenier, even though they were mostly wrong. the stories have had a devastating effect.
“For the most part, they were the usual pastiche of rumor, half-truth, and innuendo, generally attributed to unidentified sources whose grasp of what was happening in most cases was — to us — transparently half-baked,” Grenier told me for the book. “By citing the alleged cooperation of specific countries in highly sensitive areas, however, these leaks were having a chilling effect. They made it appear to many of our partners that we couldn’t keep a secret — that we couldn’t protect them under circumstances where they were cooperating with us in good faith for the benefit of their countries but in ways which would have been highly unpopular with their own populations.”
Perhaps half a dozen countries, most critically important in the war on terror, said they would have to ratchet down cooperation with the CIA on sensitive projects. All did, in fact, scale back such cooperation.
Bin Laden has got to be chortling at how the media and key members of Congress are making his next bloody attack easier to pull off.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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