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Waterboarding Policy and Consequences

A Commentary By Tony Blankley

"President George W. Bush kept us safe from further terrorist attacks." Few presidential claims have been less persuasive to the public than that. Yet after Sept. 11, most Americans thought, "It's not a question of whether, but when." We would have been grateful if we had known at the time that there would be no further attacks while Bush was president.

However, as time passed, fewer and fewer believed that Bush's specific judgments and actions were keeping us safe. Most probably assumed our deliverance from a second attack on our soil was attributable to some combination of blind luck and the vigilant work of thousands of our security workers. And, of course, without both of those factors, we would not have avoided danger so far.

But as of last Saturday, few reasonable people are able to deny that in addition to luck and the vigilance of security professionals, if it had not been for the specific policy judgments and actions of Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, America would have been hit by more Islamist terror attacks on our soil. Up until Saturday, the mainstream media and most of the Democratic Party successfully had asserted that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods were ineffective, as well as immoral.

But Saturday, the liberal Washington Post commendably did its duty as the paper of record in Washington by running a major, above-the-fold front-page lead story described thus by the new bible of Washington politics, Politico: "Post story bolsters Cheney."

"The Washington Post leads today with an extraordinary story cutting against the conclusions of a series of recent government and media reports to cast as straight news -- with a few hedges and qualifications -- that waterboarding and sleep deprivation worked like a charm to turn (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) from an enemy into an 'asset.'"

The Washington Post described "the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its 'preeminent source' on (al-Qaida). This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques."

Before the waterboarding and sleep deprivation, he gave no useful information. After such nasty techniques, he gave information that led to (among many other invaluable terror-stopping pieces of information) the arrest of Iyman Faris, an al-Qaida-trained sleeper agent who had been dispatched to the United States by KSM to plot attacks on landmarks in the New York area, including the Brooklyn Bridge.

And note that the Post story was presented by the anti-war national reporting section of the paper -- not the more balanced editorial page, which had been more supportive of Bush's war policies in general.

It is strongly suspected that soon we will see released more CIA documents -- including actual interrogation logs and at least one document from the CIA's Directorate of Operations -- that will provide further direct evidence of the high utility of information gained from waterboarding and sleep deprivation techniques. (Hat tip for foregoing confirming information to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)

Of course, we will go on debating whether such interrogation techniques are moral and legal or not. But with the authoritative reporting of The Washington Post's confirming the implications of released documents and the powerful background guidance from many people in the intelligence community, it is no longer credible for opponents of such techniques to claim that such specific techniques didn't, in specific events, lead to information that thwarted specific terrorist attacks.

This is not merely a matter of backward-looking vindication for some of us. Much, much more importantly, it will shape current and future policy debate -- and perhaps save thousands or millions of American lives. While moral questions may lead some to continue to reject the use of such nasty methods, they no longer can cloud the debate with the suggestion that "there is no proof that it even works."

Opponents -- including, of course, the current administration -- will be forced to make the unambiguous argument that they believe -- even though they concede that the methods may work to prevent an attack -- that it is morally preferable to let perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans be killed by radical Islamist terrorists than to apply such interrogation methods to a known terrorist.

Even more broadly, the lesson from Bush and Cheney's decision to use such techniques is that usually, man has it in his power to affect human events by specific judgments and actions. For a government to believe fatalistically that we are impotent to shape large events can itself be a moral failing. In the 1930s, the British government and the public convinced themselves that there was no defense to bombing that would wipe out cities in just a few days. "The bomber will always get through," lamented the passive prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. As a result, they failed to build enough fighters and train enough pilots. Then the Nazis came -- and they eventually were stopped in the air, but not before scores of thousands of British needlessly were killed because of insufficient practical preparations.

After Sept. 11, the Bush administration ordered the nasty techniques that saved thousands of Americans from sudden, hideous death. Now that policy has been rescinded. Every effect has a cause.


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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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