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Words of Wisdom About Terror Trials -- Whatever Your View

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Anyone that has a serious interest in or is involved in making policy regarding our national security, especially in light on the ongoing debate around military commissions for terrorist suspects and the disposition of the Gitmo holding facility, should read a recently-published book entitled Courting Disaster by Marc C. Thiessen (Regenery 2010). Mr. Thiessen is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and in that capacity was asked to help President Bush explain to the country how he was fighting terrorist threats.

The book was written in response to the numerous allegations that the interrogation techniques used by the CIA and military on those suspected of involvement in terroristic activity were morally and legally indefensible, comparable to those used by rogue states such as Nazi Germany and Cambodia, and in any event ineffective at protecting the U.S. from 9-11 style attacks. While Thiessen is obviously a proponent of the enhanced interrogation methods that have made much news, this book is much more than mere rhetoric.

It is a meticulously reasoned and documented explanation of the need for such methods, their efficacy, the specific limitations around them and their distinction from what was done in other countries. Among other elements which reflect the rigor of the author's analysis and enhance the reader's understanding of the issues are:

-- He describes specific plots which were discovered and foiled as a direct result of enhanced interrogations and demonstrates that such actions saved large numbers of innocent lives;

-- He demonstrates that the techniques at issue in the public debate have been used most judiciously, for example, that only three suspects have been waterboarded, and that such techniques are used only where there is reason to believe in the specific case that they will allow the disruption of a threat, and then, only after lesser means have failed;

-- He notes that the techniques at issue are routinely used, without incident, in the training of our military - one of many reasons they should not be considered torture;

-- He enumerates the specific limitations around most of the techniques which have been imposed by administrative order, and none of which existed in other countries and that such limitations have avoided any physical injury to the subject of the U.S. interrogations;

-- With an excellent example from WWI involving our discovery of German codes being used to avoid U-boat attacks, he identifies the specific adverse consequences in the fight against terrorism which will result from Obama Administration positions; for example from promptly identifying persons being held for this purpose may assist the enemy to avoid capture and defer their plot.

The book also includes an extensive critique of the legitimacy and implications of the extensive involvement of the legal process in the treatment of detainees, and makes clear that many of the proponents of the use of such process appear to have conflicting loyalties. He also makes clear the contrast between the present situation and prior conflicts, where today's legally-oriented arguments would not have been considered, and the legal process would have seriously impaired our ability to prevail.

As important to the current debate as the aforementioned 'mechanical' and 'technical' arguments in support of enhanced interrogation, is Thiessen's morally-based rebuttal to their opponents. In particular, he distinguishes actions intended as retribution from actions intended as prevention:

The interrogations of captured terrorists are not conducted for the purpose of justice -- they are conducted for the purpose of gaining intelligence to save innocent lives. No one who argues for the use of these techniques against a small number of senior al Quaeda terrorists would support using the same techniques in Americana prisons to punish criminals or extract confessions. [Emphasis in original]

A full chapter entitled "Hard Choices" is devoted to similar moral argument, in which Thiessen directly addresses many arguments made against these practices and points out their weaknesses and the failure of their proponents to utilize the opportunities presented to them to respond.

He also points out the anomaly that insistence by the Administration upon use of the Army Field Manual to guide interrogations gives suspects more rights than those afforded 'ordinary' criminal suspects by local police.

While yours truly finds quite persuasive most of the case made by Theissen, this is not the main reason for advocating that it be read by debate participants and followers. Rather, its value in this context rests with its demonstration that rigorous argument can be made on both sides of this debate and that there is no need to cede the 'moral high ground' to those who feel that we must equate the war on terror with traditional law enforcement. Even those who are uncomfortable with enhanced interrogation, maintenance of Gitmo and military commissions, will benefit from the full consideration of contrary arguments, and some of those arguments may even change their mind.