As we’ve gotten further up to our necks in Presidential aspirants (some of whom have dropped like flies; others to follow, no doubt), the Republicans have — for the most part — been a rush to see who can offer the most ways to torture “our enemies” and “keep us safe.” Well, except for John McCain (God love him). Now, there’s a lot that I disagree with McCain on, including his constant assertion that “my friends, we are winning in Iraq.” (Ummm…. winning what? From whom? If we’re fighting Al Qaeda over there, presumably so we don’t have to fight them over here, why is it that we seem to be in the middle of non-Qaeda Iraqis so much of the time? But that’s a topic for another post. McCain has consistently and vocally been totally, completely opposed to torture. He’s a man who should know — and he also is a man who knows how much it demeans the torturers as well as the victims.
I bring this up because CBS’s 60 Minutes has aired an interview with the George Piro, the FBI Agent who spent five months interrogating Saddam Hussein. Piro and his team of FBI and CIA operatives were trying to extract from Saddam the answers to a number of vexing questions, including why he didn’t resist the US invasion and just what happened to all those WMDs. When asked if he had used waterboarding or sleep deprivation (two of Darth Cheney’s favs), Piro replied that the FBI does not use tactics like that.
So what did Piro do? As the interview with 60 Minutes (which is fascinating; go listen for yourself) details, “interrogating” Saddam involved the use of subtle power games coupled with conversation and slowly winning him over. The information gleaned included Saddam’s admission that his boasting of WMDs was mostly to keep his enemies at bay (especially Iran), but also that he would have persued any and all weapons if given the chance. While this sounds like the Bush justification for going to war, we must remember that it really underscores the lack of an immenent threat and that real possibility that we could have prevented him from ever reconstituting his weapons programs through pressure and verifiable inspections. And those WMDs that various politicos insist are still there — somewhere? Mostly destroyed by the UN Inspectors, with the remainder destroyed by Saddam himself.
Quite apart from Republicans invoking Jack Bauer (never have so many Republicans confused a fictonal television character with reality since Dan Quayle’s tirades against Murphy Brown!) as a national security device, the Saddam interrogation proves that useful information can be gleaned without being barbarians ourselves. Yes, it did take five months, and think of how much more we could have understood about Saddam and his regime, had he not be rushed to the gallows. In the proverbial “a bomb is about to go off and we have someone who knows something (at least we think that he does), we don’t have the luxury of time. But remember that the 9/11 plot was in the making for five years. There are very few occasions where someone in custody has information that is so vital and so timely that we have to know at this moment. Bill Clinton came around to the his wife’s position that we should never condone torture. If we have one of those “Jack Bauer” moments, then whomever is in charge will have to make the decision to accept responsibility for extraordinary measures in an extraordinary situation.
The FBI considers the information obtained from Saddam as one of the major accomplishments of the agency, which turns 100 this year. That’s saying quite a lot; and it also says what can be accomplished while retaining the moral high ground the United States used to occupy.