Andy McCarthy Responds

Here's his piece, defending his stance on torture and "coercive interrogation". On a simple matter of fact,  I should let Andy know that I have indeed written that in the practically non-existent but hypothetically conceivable "ticking bomb" scenario, I do believe a president could legitimately authorize torture and subsequently subject himself and others to the relevant legal penalties. This does not mean, however, that there should be the slightest legal wiggle room for torture or any inhumane treatment of detainees as a matter of standing law or executive prerogative in America, which is why I strongly opposed last year's Military Commissions Act, which gives the president lee-way to torture anyone he decides is an "enemy combatant" at will. McCarthy supported that law, which means he favors torture as a legal option for presidential policy. I don't. Moreover, I do not believe that restoring America's long refusal to torture would "shut down intelligence completely," as Andy would have it. In fact, I think that argument is absurd. We had no viable intelligence in the Cold War or every other conflict the U.S. has fought? The evidence we procure through torture, moreover, is inherently unreliable and dependence on it may actually be hampering better, more serious and more effective ways of gleaning the intelligence that we desperately need. Torture isn't just immoral; it is stupid, clumsy and almost always unproductive.

Andy refers to the precise status of enemy combatants under various Geneva protocols. I'm not a lawyer - but Geneva's baseline protections for detainees plainly do not merely apply to formal POWs in declared wars, but to all human captives in any form of conflict. In previous wars, such as Vietnam and even against Jihadists in Somalia, the US has treated all such captives with baseline Geneva protections against outrages on human dignity and the like. Why? Not because they have a formal status as POWs but because Geneva's baseline protections demand it, and because it is part of the core meaning of this country, part of a military tradition that goes back to George Washington himself, and an integral part of the small progress mankind has made against the forces of barbarism. In any case, Andy concedes that international law protects detainees from abuse and mistreatment and torture, independently of Geneva. So what's he left with exactly? And if you're going to play nit-picking lawyer, as Andy tries to, how exactly do the Geneva Conventions apply to Iran with whom the U.S. is not formally at war? And how does the display and photographing of British prisoners by Iran differ from the photos taken of detainees in Iraq by the US for purposes of potential blackmail and leverage against them? The US government itself released photographs of an imprisoned and humiliated Saddam in his jammies. Under Andy's rules, that was just as big a violation of Geneva as the Iranian abuse of British sailors. Where was his outrage then?

But my broader point was about what the founders dared to call "the opinion of mankind". We are in a propaganda war as well as a military one. In fact, the war of ideas may well be more important in this war than in previous ones, since our only long-term hope of prevailing is talking the majority of Muslims out of the Islamist camp. The damage that legalizing torture has done to this effort and therefore to the war against Islamist terror is incalculable - and Iran's latest p.r. coup just demonstrates how deep the damage is, and how deftly smiling bigots like Ahmadinejad can exploit it. That's why, of course, the Bush administration did all it could to keep the torture hidden in the first place. But in the modern world, such tactics cannot be hidden for very long. Nor can torture ever be contained, as Andy would prefer to have it. Moreover, it hasn't been contained.

Andy is, I'm sure, sincere in his abhorrence of Abu Ghraib. But he still thinks of it as some strange, one-off event unauthorized by anyone. What I fear he hasn't grasped is the clear link between the president's approval of torture and its deployment in that jail, using approved techniques well known by professional torturers everywhere, under a commander selected precisely because of his experience torturing detainees for "intelligence" at Gitmo. I didn't believe it myself at first, until I read the memos and the reports and the increasing mounds of testimony from the torturers and direct witnesses to torture themselves. It is not a pleasant experience, coming to terms with what has been done. But I'm afraid it's a necessity if we are to turn over this awful page and win this war. Right now, we're losing it. And Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and the policies that made them happen are key parts of the reason.