Killing vs. Capturing/Interrogating Terrorists
More regarding the dueling VPs last weekend:
Biden struck first, declaring that Cheney's attacks on Obama's commitment to fighting terrorism ignored the facts.
"We've eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates," said Biden. "They are in fact not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run. I don't know where Dick Cheney has been. Look, it's one thing, again, to criticize. It's another thing to sort of rewrite history. What is he talking about?"
What is Joe Biden talking about, "rewrite history"? Much of al Qaeda's original leadership and many of its operatives were killed and captured in the years since 9/11 and before the Age of Obama. Furthermore, Obama has inherited many of the tools developed during the Bush years that has kept America safe. Even many of his lefty allies understand that much of the war on terror success OBiden can boast of in his first year in office is due to the perpetuation of Bush-era policies that they so despised and reviled.
But where Obama departs from Bush is where he endangers America most...
Besides the determination to close Guantanamo, the most potentially disastrous decision of the Obama Administration has been the suspension of the CIA interrogation program that saved American lives; a program that prevented other 9/11-scale attacks on American soil.
Since we no longer seem interested in the business of detaining and interrogating al Qaeda operatives what appears to be the Obama solution: Just kill 'em.
Toward the end of President Obama's first year in office:
The New America Foundation, a policy group in Washington, studied press reports and estimated that since 2006 at least 500 militants and 250 civilians had been killed in the drone strikes. A separate count, by The Long War Journal, found 885 militants' deaths and 94 civilians'.
So let's get this straight: It's ok to kill terrorists along with innocent civilians under Obama; but not ok to capture and waterboard terrorists under Bush?
The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the "the false choice between our security and our ideals." Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target -- individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
In my previous post, I mentioned an article by Marc Thiessen, former Bush speech writer and author of the must-read Courting Disaster. In it, Thiessen writes:
Obama's escalation of the "Predator War" comes at the very same time he has eliminated the CIA's capability to capture senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogate them for information on new attacks. The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton -- an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.
The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning -- and that is putting the country at risk. As one high-ranking CIA official explained to me, in an interview for my book Courting Disaster, "In the wake of 9/11, [the CIA] put forward a program that had a lethal component to strike back at the people who did this. But the other component was to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again. And for that, killing people -- especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders -- is potentially counterproductive in that we can't know or learn of future attacks. You can't kill them all, and you don't want to kill them all from an intelligence standpoint. We needed to know what they knew."
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka "Hambali"), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others. In all, about 100 terrorists were detained and questioned by the CIA. And the information they provided helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London's financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can't tell you their plans to strike America.
A commenter in the previous post questioned whether or not Thiessen was being misleading, noting that
I imagine many situtations that offer drones a target of opportunity don’t also offer an opportunity for capture.
Thiessen addresses this point in his article:
To be sure, unmanned drones are critical in the struggle against al Qaeda. They allow the United States to reach terrorists hiding in remote regions where it would be difficult for special operations forces to reach them, or to act on perishable intelligence when the only choice is to kill a terrorist or lose him. Constantly hovering Predator (or Reaper) drones also have a psychological effect on the enemy, forcing al Qaeda leaders to live in fear and spend time focusing on self-preservation that would otherwise be used planning the next attack. All this is for the good.
The problem is, there have been opportunities to capture rather than kill senior leaders, and the decision was made to take the latter route. In last Sunday's WaPo:
When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.
The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.
The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.
The Nabhan decision was one of a number of similar choices the administration has faced over the past year as President Obama has escalated U.S. attacks on the leadership of al-Qaeda and its allies around the globe. The result has been dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions.
This would appear to validate Thiessen's criticism that by shutting down the CIA interrogation program and by closing down Guantanamo, the Obama administration is not interested in detaining and interrogating. Just law enforcement prosecutions and eliminations.
If this is the Obama approach to fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates, then we will be fighting blind. But hey! Maybe we'll get lucky again and have another failed (rather than "foiled") terror plot unhatch.
Let's hope, however, that captures like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his subsequent interrogation remain the norm and not the exception to fighting committed terrorists.
-Bring back the CIA program that interrogated the likes of KSM and Zubaydah.
-Keep Guantanamo open for business.
Cross-posted at Flopping Aces