Michael Barone / May 27, 2009

No Time for Tea-and-Crumpet Interrogations

When former Vice President Dan Quayle scheduled a big speech, President Bill Clinton didn’t hop in and schedule one for the hour before. When former Vice President Al Gore scheduled a big speech, President George W. Bush didn’t hop in and schedule one for the hour before. But when former Vice President Dick Cheney scheduled a big speech for 10:30 a.m. last week at the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a research fellow, President Barack Obama hopped in and scheduled a speech for 10 a.m. that day at the National Archives.

A little defensive, no?

Cheney spoke in defense of the Bush administration’s terrorist interrogation policies and of the Guantanamo detention camp. But he was really on offense. The Bush administration managed to keep America safe for 2,689 days after the September 11 attacks, he said. The enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding of three captured terrorists, saved hundreds of lives. Barack Obama’s release of the legal memoranda approving those techniques has made our defenders less safe – now let him release the reports showing the information we got from the detainees.

There were even a couple of well-deserved swipes at the press. The New York Times, Cheney noted, was “publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaida. It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people.” The Times reporter sitting behind me at AEI said afterwards he agreed – whether he was joking or serious I couldn’t tell.

From Obama we heard a lawyerly defense of his acquiescence in Bush policies that he lambasted on the campaign trail, including his declaration that we will hold some detainees indefinitely without trial by civilian courts or military commissions. After urging that we not look backward, he did so himself, saying he inherited a “mess” and assuring us, without supporting data, that Guantanamo “likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

I have tried to understand the fury of the political left, a fury Obama stoked in the Senate and on the campaign trail, over the interrogation techniques and Guantanamo. Yes, the interrogations were a miserable business, and I wouldn’t like to be in the room for them, on either side of the questioning. But were they really terrible? You don’t have to consult Mr. Webster to know that this is a distinction with a difference.

Sept. 11 was terrible. The terrorist attacks of the 1990s, which Cheney grimly ticked off, were terrible. I recently reread Gerhard Weinberg’s brilliant history of World War II, “A World At Arms,” and in my comfortable chair could only begin to appreciate how terrible the conflict was for tens of millions.

The war against terrorism, like civilian law enforcement, is filled with no-win choices. I was in law school in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court was issuing decisions softening the treatment of criminal suspects. Those decisions were informed by the law review articles of University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, which set forth the grim scenes of police grinding confessions out of (almost always guilty) defendants. From the Gothic compound of Michigan Law School or the quiet of a judge’s chambers, those scenes seemed horrifying, something that just couldn’t be allowed to happen.

And from leafy Ann Arbor or the serene Supreme Court building, the results of those decisions, and of the softened law enforcement of those years, may not have looked so bad. But I saw those results on the streets of Detroit, and they were ugly. Crime tripled in 10 years. Thousands of people were murdered, beaten, robbed. Inner-city neighborhoods were destroyed. You can go there today and see the burnt-out houses and empty lots and shells of commercial strips in what was once America’s fourth largest city and which now has less than half the population it did in the 1950s.

I believe Barack Obama is taking seriously his responsibility to protect the nation. His speech at the Archives had some uplifting rhetoric, but it tottered between denunciations of the Bush administration and attempts to propitiate those in his own party who are angry that he is continuing military commissions and indefinite detention without trial – and those Democrats who voted last week to prohibit any Guantanamo detainees from being sent to the United States.

I hope his continued denunciation of “torture” won’t limit our defenders to tea-and-crumpets interrogations. And that he realizes now that we need something like Guantanamo.


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