Shadow Government

Fear, facts, and the terror debate

By Christian Brose Say what you will about Vice President Cheney’s decision to come out swinging so soon after leaving office, or President Obama’s decision to launch a preemptive strike against him today, the speech that each man gave this morning was smart, serious, sober, and civil. Here we had one of the hardest national ...

By Christian Brose

Say what you will about Vice President Cheney’s decision to come out swinging so soon after leaving office, or President Obama’s decision to launch a preemptive strike against him today, the speech that each man gave this morning was smart, serious, sober, and civil. Here we had one of the hardest national security issues of our time debated head to head in front of the entire country by the two best advocates for their respective sides. It was a fascinating occasion. And yet I am left thinking, now even more than before, that this is an argument that will never end, for two reasons: facts and fear.

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Obama’s speech was how dismissive he was of fear and the people who rightly felt it (and still do). The decisions made after 9/11, he said, were "based upon fear rather than foresight," as if that alone discredits them. Cheney and others are "fear-mongering" by reminding the voting public that there are people out there who want to kill us, and that Americans differ over how to prevent that from happening. The truth is, fear is a human emotion, and thus an inherently political issue. Obama and company are perfectly willing to play on people’s fears when it comes to jobs, or health care, or the environment. People are legitimately afraid for those things, just as they are for their security. And one purpose of policymaking is to assuage those fears.

Everyone was afraid after 9/11, for one good reason: a lack of facts — about whether more attacks were coming, and if so, how, and when, and from where, and by whom. Uncertainty is the greatest fear of all, and like it or not, in the weeks after 9/11, that was the climate in which new policies had to be made on a host of hard problems for which there were few precedents, legal or historical. Cheney and others contend that those policies worked. They generated facts, and those facts saved lives. And if only Obama would release the CIA memos that supposedly lay out what was learned, the American people could see those facts for themselves and draw their own conclusions about "enhanced" interrogation.

Would that settle things once and for all? Somehow I doubt it. For when it comes to intelligence, facts are strange things.

Cheney himself acknowledged today that some people who have reviewed the CIA memos think they are "inconclusive." Others agree. In time, it’s easy to imagine there will be other memos, if there aren’t already, that look at the same record of "enhanced" interrogations and the same resulting intelligence and yet draw the opposite conclusion from the CIA, which is after all justifying a CIA program. I’m not sure we will ever be able to say with absolute certainty that one specific "enhanced" interrogation led to the disruption of a specific terrorist plot that definitely would have killed Americans. With any luck, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s comprehensive investigation of this issue will reach firm conclusions. But I’m just not sure intelligence works this way, that it’s this conclusive. It’s like pulling one strand of a tightly knit sweater and saying it is the decisive thread holding the whole thing together. And of course, even if you were able to corroborate that judgment, you still wouldn’t be able to prove the negative — that this piece of intelligence could not have been gained through other, less harsh means.

This is what I mean by an argument without end. For all of the facts we now have, and those that may still emerge, I doubt they will convince the American public decisively to side either with Obama or Cheney. And where there is uncertainty there will continue to be fear. This helps to explain the recent paradoxical findings from a major Gallup poll that a slight majority of Americans believe both that "enhanced" interrogations were justified and that past instances of their use should be investigated for misconduct.

Fear isn’t going anywhere. The question is, how best to manage and assuage it while not exploiting it.

I don’t fear for America because of the policies Obama laid out today, because I agree with Jack Goldsmith that most of these policies are largely similar in their substance to where the Bush administration ended up, often as a result of shifts in its approach during the second term based on new facts that emerged and new perspectives that were gained. This is the irony of Cheney’s current position: Many of the policies he is arguing for now were in recent years rolled back by President Bush himself, or overturned by the Supreme Court. Closing Guantanamo is an exception, but it was Bush’s stated goal to do so, and people like Secretary Rice and John Bellinger and Matt Waxman worked tirelessly to do it. Closing it now, though difficult, is both right and necessary. So in all these ways, Cheney’s argument is with Bush as much as it is with Obama.

What does make me fearful, though, is the way the White house has handled this entire thing — deciding to release the Justice Department memos, but saying there would be no prosecutions, but then reversing and saying, actually, there may be some prosecutions after all. Obama said he released those memos because the information they contained was already widely known. Well, that works just as well as an argument for not releasing them, because nothing would be gained by doing so. We already knew that senior Al-Qaeda terrorists had been waterboarded; how many times it was done is just a detail, gory though it is. What the release of those memos did accomplish, though, was to greatly exacerbate the fear on the part of our national security professionals. And here, I think, Cheney gets it right:

[A]t the CIA, operatives are left to wonder if they can depend on the White House or Congress to back them up when the going gets tough. Why should any agency employee take on a difficult assignment when, even though they act lawfully and in good faith, years down the road the press and Congress will treat everything they do with suspicion, outright hostility, and second-guessing?

I would add that this applies to the military as well.

The debate over "enhanced" interrogation, the rule of law, and national security will never end. But I fear the tragedy is just beginning. Before 9/11, America’s counter-terrorism policies suffered from excessive caution and risk-aversion. After 9/11, that pendulum swung too far in the other direction, toward what Cheney once called "the dark side." Now that pendulum is swinging right back toward the other extreme again — not because Obama wants it to, or believes it should, or mandated that it must in his policies, but because of unnecessary actions he took without adequate "foresight," and the manner in which he took them. The professionals entrusted to keep America safe now work in fear of taking the risks that their jobs entail. And the people they’re charged with protecting still don’t have the facts to reach a political consensus on this issue (and likely never will, even if Cheney were to get his way).

This debate may reduce to a low boil, but it won’t go away. And when the next attack comes, as everyone believes it inevitably will, we will be right back in the teeth of this thing. It is a fight without end, and I fear it will only get nastier.

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