Few post-9/11 issues have produced more anxiety and revulsion than the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of “aggressive interrogation” and the extrajudicial rendition of terrorist suspects to countries that practice torture. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to ban waterboarding and other pain-inflicting soliciting techniques, as well as rendition. He has also promised to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.
More broadly, liberal Democrats in Congress intend to deploy a more moral counterterrorism, where the ends — stopping the slaughter of civilians by Islamic holy warriors — no longer justifies reprehensible means. Winning the hearts and minds of foreigners by remaining true to our nobler virtues is now seen as the way to defeat our enemies while preserving our essential goodness.
Sounds uplifting. Don’t bet on it happening.
Mr. Obama will soon face the same awful choices that confronted George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and he could well be forced to accept a central feature of their anti-terrorist methods: extraordinary rendition. If the choice is between non-deniable aggressive questioning conducted by Americans and deniable torturous interrogations by foreigners acting on behalf of the United States, it is almost certain that as president Mr. Obama will choose the latter.
Of course, he and his senior officials seem to believe now that they don’t have to make this choice. For them there is a better way to combat terrorism, by using physically non-coercive questioning of suspects and civilian courts or military courts-martial to try and punish jihadists.
But this third way, which is essentially where America was before the Clinton administration embraced rendition, is plausible only if Mr. Obama is lucky. He might be. If there is no “ticking time bomb” situation — say, where waterboarding a future Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (the 9/11 mastermind) could save thousands of civilians — then there is neither need for the C.I.A.’s exceptional methods, nor the harsh services of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.
And there are signs that Mr. Obama won’t have to confront such a situation. Through American and allied efforts, Al Qaeda has sustained enormous damage since 9/11. Osama bin Laden’s decisive battle in Iraq, where Al Qaeda intended to re-energize its holy war against the Americans among the Arabs, has turned into a military and moral disaster. Arab Muslim fundamentalists have finally started the great debate as to whether it is, in fact, unacceptable to kill believers and nonbelievers in jihad.
And the internal-security services of our allies in Europe are, on the whole, vastly better today than they were in 2001. Thanks to intrusive surveillance methods (many of which are outlawed in the United States), they are much more efficient in pre-empting the plots of holy warriors traversing their borders.
However, troubles in Pakistan may well reverse Mr. Obama’s luck. He has said he intends to be hawkish about fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Central Asia. So, let us suppose that he increases the number of Special Forces raids into Pakistan, and those soldiers capture members of Al Qaeda and their computers, and learn that the group has advanced plans for striking American and European targets, but we don’t know specifically where or when.
What would Mr. Obama do? After all, if we’d gotten our hands on a senior member of Al Qaeda before 9/11, and knew that an attack likely to kill thousands of Americans was imminent, wouldn’t waterboarding, or taking advantage of the skills of our Jordanian friends, have been the sensible, moral thing to do with a holy warrior who didn’t fear death but might have feared pain?
Mr. Obama will probably not have the option of ordering the C.I.A. to aggressively interrogate another member of Al Qaeda — not after running a campaign that highlighted the moral failings of President Bush. To get the C.I.A. back in the interrogation business would probably require a liberal Democratic Congress to pass laws guaranteeing case officers’ immunity from criminal and civil prosecution. This seems unlikely — unless, of course, the United States is again devastated by a terrorist strike.
And because of Mr. Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo, the Justice Department is already going to have to figure out how to move, try, punish and release its detainees. Thus the last thing in the world the Obama administration will want is to bring in more “enemy combatants” from the Central Asian battlefield.
Which brings us back to rendition, which, properly understood, is what Americans do when they realize that active counterterrorism against jihadists prepared to use mass-casualty weapons is an ethical, juridical and operational tar pit. It isn’t an ideal solution — American intelligence officers have no control of the questioning, and Washington can become beholden to foreign security services — but it’s a satisfactory compromise. Just ask Samuel R. Berger, the national-security adviser for President Bill Clinton, who no doubt worked through all the pitfalls when he first approved extrajudicial rendition.
In addition, the C.I.A. is able to guard the secrecy of foreign-liaison operations more effectively, especially from Congressional prying, than it can its own activities. It has also certainly paid close attention to how the press tracked some of its clandestine international flights carrying terrorism suspects after 9/11, and will in the future undoubtedly make it much harder to sleuth out who is going where.
A dense bipartisan moral fog surrounds rendition. Former senior Clinton officials can still deny that they sent anyone away in order that he be tortured. Few are as honest and frank as Walt Slocombe, a Clinton undersecretary of defense who once remarked that the difference between Democratic and Republican rendition was that Democrats “drilled air holes in the boxes.”
If Mr. Obama’s Democrats get blown back into the ugly world that we live in, and resume rendition (and, of course, fib about it), then President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have been vilified for besmirching America’s honor, may at least take some consolation in knowing that hypocrisy is always the homage vice pays to virtue.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.