So today, on Meet the Press, SecDef Panetta admitted, while trying not to, that some of the information gleaned from the controversial tactic known as water boarding ultimately led the US to bin Laden.
The real story was that in order to put the puzzle of intelligence together that led us to Bin Laden, there were a lot of pieces out there that were a part of that puzzle. Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time, interrogation tactics that were used. But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.
But the death of bin Laden was only an incidental benefit. The real benefit gained from water boarding in those early months after 9/11 rocked the country was it allowed the US to shape a rapid and effective response to a network that had been growing more powerful and dangerous than most knew.
People point the finger at Clinton or Bush in an attempt to blame someone for the series of intelligence failures leading to 9/11. President Clinton ignored the issue for the most part (except for one minor attempt to take out bin Laden), President Bush assigned in a lower priority in the early months of his administration, and the American people expressed almost no interest at all. All that is because it wasn’t really an issue until it became one.
This is how democracies tend to work. The business of most democracies is life or business. In the US we love our men and women in the military and hold them in high regard. At the same time, we would rather not have a military at all. Wars are bad for life and bad for business. We keep a military because we know that to not have one is far more dangerous.
So, while we often get involved in minor squabbles throughout the world, we stubbornly avoid major conflicts. So, while the US had been combating terrorists for decades at a lower, mainly hidden, level, major actions had not been taken. Until 9/11 slapped us in the face and we realized suddenly and as a nation how completely unprepared we were for this conflict.
Of course, the most pressure fell squarely on the shoulders of a president who in many ways was still getting settled in his new role. In one moment all of the president’s priorities changed and he knew that his legacy would be about one thing, preventing another such devastating attack.
The first most crucial element was to gain intelligence. It’s one thing to confront a powerful army with ships and planes and soldiers; quite another to deal with a well-financed army, hidden among societies all across the planet. An army that was organized into smaller cells whose main purpose was to cause chaos and death wherever possible. It’s a structure and a system with many advantages and few weaknesses.
But the one weakness is that, if someone at a high enough level could be made to give up what they knew, it could be used quietly and effectively to counter terrorist networks everywhere. And while there is much speculation on my part regarding the ultimate plan implemented by the Bush Administration, it seems quite clear from actions taken that the idea was to deliver multiple blows to terrorist networks in multiple ways and locations.
So, while the military allied itself with Afghan resistance fighters in the overthrow of the Taliban, our intelligence services went to work capturing and interrogating high-level operatives. It seems likely there was a desire to respond both rapidly and with great force. But how to gain intelligence from prisoners who look upon death for their cause as something to be sought after? For this unique challenge came unique solutions, one of which was water boarding.
Not that this was something implemented on a whim. The Bush Administration was advised of possible options and considered each carefully. With water boarding, as with all suggested “enhanced” interrogation techniques, there were extensive discussion and reviews. Finally, water boarding was chosen as part of the enhanced interrogation tactics and, in the opinion of this blogger, the decision was a good one.
We knew a great deal about water boarding and how to do it effectively for very good reason, it was something we did regularly to members of the military going through what is known as SERE Training (survival, evasion, resistance, escape). A close friend of mine went through SERE school and advised me that water boarding was not the worst of what he had been made to endure there.
But the main goal of water boarding was not to capture bin Laden, it was to ensure that future recurrences of we experienced on 9/11 would not materialize. In this the Bush Administration succeeded spectacularly well, much to the chagrin of political opponents. But liberals opposed water boarding more because it was administered by a man they tend to hate than because of ideological issues. But had the president failed to prevent another major terrorist attack, they would have been even quicker to condemn him as incompetent.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Fortunately for all of us, the President did the right thing, not the politically expedient thing.