Sunday’s raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan by U.S. military forces should have been a moment of national unity. An evil terrorist who successfully spread his brand of religious insanity across the globe was killed by members of SEAL Team Six after he reportedly refused to surrender peacefully. The plotter of the 9/11 attacks received some measure of justice. Spontaneous outpourings of celebration broke out Sunday night. It was a poignant moment that had been building for 10 years.
Then, right on cue, Monday morning right-wingers concerned that President Barack Obama would receive too much credit for the mission made their way to the nearest live microphone. Wait a minute, they said, don’t forget to thank George W. Bush and his “harsh interrogation” policies. Then as quick as you can say, “presidential legacy,” the Bush defenders claimed that waterboarding played a crucial role in leading U.S. forces to bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said crucial clues to bin Laden’s trail came “during the interrogation of Khaled Sheik Mohammed, through waterboarding.” Others soon joined in, including Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The suggestion is that getting rough with Khaled Sheik Mohammed, a central figure in al-Qaida, led Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s front door. The defenders mostly neglect to mention that Mohammed’s waterboarding took place in 2003. Eight years seems like a long time between key evidence and confrontation.
Official sources and those close to the program disputed there is a direct connection between torture and capture.
“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that bin Laden was likely to be living there.”
All this torture talk brings the nation back to a parlor game it played for much of the last decade. That exercise unfolds like a movie plot with the hero tightening the screws on a filthy terrorist until the bad guy blurts out the location of the ticking time bomb. Reality is different from a Hollywood sound stage.
The hunt for bin Laden played out over many years. U.S. intelligence operators sifted through a mountain of clues. Planning for the mission early Monday morning in Pakistan stretched over eight months.
For more than a century, waterboarding has stood in direct contrast to U.S. values. Following World War II, the U.S. military tried a Japanese soldier for waterboarding Americans. For committing a war crime, the Japanese soldier was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Torture is expressly forbidden by U.S. law. U.S. policymakers have traditionally valued these bans because to do otherwise would give the country’s enemies license to torture U.S. soldiers. In the parlance of so many on the right, how could a “shining city on the hill” ever resort to techniques that break the law and soil the nation’s character?