Waterboarding, Drone strikes and the CIA

Water boarding, drone strikes and the CIA are all part of American vernacular and bandied about like sledgehammers in a fighting robot arena. The CIA has floated into and out of our consciousness since its inception in 1947,  remained mostly visible since President Reagan’s Iran-Contra days.

Water boarding was pretty much unknown in the civilized world before the vice presidency of Dick Cheney and drone strikes were a bit of a novelty back then. Unmanned airstrikes flourished during President Obama’s first term, then somebody let the cat out of the bag: U.S. citizens cavorting with the enemy on foreign soil were viable targets. Let the name-calling begin.

It’s not clear how we equate water boarding with unmanned air strikes, but we live in a world of dubious moral equivalencies. When I first heard the term, I (incorrectly) assumed it was something you do behind a boat.  Asked during his confirmation hearings whether or not he considered water boarding torture, CIA Director appointee John Brennan said that he was not qualified to render a legal opinion on the definition of torture.

Wikipdedia defines torture as “the practice or act of deliberately inflicting severe physical pain and possibly injury on a person…”.   Water boarding simulates the horror and panic of drowning, I think that qualifies as torture.   As a civilized nation and beacon of all that is good in the world, state-sanctioned torture may send a bad message to the rest of the world and foment anti-American hostility, putting our service men and women at increased risk of retaliation.

Contrary to what was portrayed in the movie Zero Dark Thirty or what Leon Panetta says, most intelligence experts agree that information gained during enhanced interrogation techniques tends to be unreliable, at best.   If water boarding was successful, why was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed subjected to it on 183 separate occasions and why was he talkative on the 183rd try when hadn’t been previously?

REALITY CHECK: If I knew there was a threat against my country or my family and I had a suspect in custody, the number of fingers that suspect would get to keep would depend on how many times I had to ask him for information necessary to neutralize that threat.  The principle of civility may be empirically impossible, even for those with the purest of intent.  While I deplore a nonchalant endorsement of enhanced interrogation techniques, those tasked with our protection need a modicum of impunity to do what they must.

Since the Justice Dept released a memo sanctioning U.S. citizens abroad who’ve gone over to “The Dark Side” as targets for drone strikes, objections erupted from both sides of the aisle, asymmetrically more from the Right, of course. Their inference is tenuous;  “How can you condemn water boarding while targeting U.S. citizens for assassination without so much as the benefit of a trial?”

Call me a hawk, but the ability to engage the enemy without endangering American lives seems like a good thing.   Yes, there will be collateral damage, but that comes with any military action.  Even the Israelis,  who scrupulously struggle to limit civilian casualties can not completely avoid them.   Innocent bystanders have perished during conflict since the beginning of time.  It bears remembering, though that what we consider collateral damage, the bad guys consider legitimate targets.   The 3,000 INTENDED victims of 9/11, while specifically targeted were not enemy combatants. They were Al-Qaida’s targets, not collateral damage.

It’s also worth remembering that Al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas and all the other terrorist organizations are not drawn from any specific country. We are not under attack by a sovereign nation. The common bond is Islam and a hatred of America. Anyone can join, even an American.

Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were Americans killed by drone strikes in Yemen in September last year, preceded by neither formal charges and nor trial.  Were they any different, though than bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian or any of the 9/11 hijackers or any other terrorist, whether from Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen or Iraq?   American citizenship is too precious to allow it to be used as a shield for terrorism.   Had al-Awlaki lived in an earlier time and decided to wear a Nazi uniform, he would have been shot.  No questions asked.

We all have to live (or die) with our choices. The lines are blurred and if you cast your fate with those who would destroy America, your fate will be as theirs. Like water boarding,  it’s unavoidable and inevitable.   And if it turns out to be the CIA flying a Predator drone with a Hellfire missile engraved with your name, you don’t get to cry “Foul”.    Half our fighting forces are private contractors,  have been for some time.  You don’t get to pick your assassin.  If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.  If you can’t face the drone, leave Al-Qaeda alone.

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