At its heart, the defense of the interrogation techniques of the CIA is an emotional one. It is an appeal to the fear and dread and disgust Americans felt when they witnessed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is a plea to remember what it felt like for New Yorkers to watch iconic towers collapse, for Washingtonians to run in fear away from the White House as the Pentagon burned, and for Pennsylvanians to hunt for body parts among the debris of a downed airplane.
And, for once, such a baldly emotional argument is legitimate. For even with the release of the summary of a Senate Democratic report on those interrogation techniques, it is impossible to settle this debate with hard, unassailable evidence. President Obama, most Democrats, and some Republicans insist that torture almost never is effective in securing actionable intelligence. Most Republicans, the Bush administration officials who authorized the techniques, and the CIA operatives who oversaw the program just as stoutly insist that the program worked and saved American lives.
That debate will rage for decades as historians search for more evidence and as more documents are unclassified and disclosed. But no declassification is needed to recall the fear that gripped the country when those hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. And the first wave of criticism of the Senate report asks you to remember how you felt that day, as painful as it may be to relive those still-raw emotions.
Those emotions were on display Tuesday morning during a tense and dramatic confrontation on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Nicolle Wallace, the normally unflappable former Bush White House communications director, erupted when former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean attacked the interrogations program and said Americans need to know what else their government did beyond waterboarding suspected terrorists.
"What else did we do to make sure that 3,000 people weren't blown out, obliterated on a New York City morning?" Wallace asked incredulously. Her voice shaking, she added, "I don't care what we did." Contending that only three detainees were waterboarded, she said, "In the history of this country—I think months after 9/11 there were three people who we thought knew about imminent attacks and we did whatever we had to do. And I pray to God that until the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what's happening."
Ari Fleischer was President George W. Bush's press secretary on 9/11. He has described that week as the most emotional of his life, particularly that Friday when he was with the president atop the rubble in New York and alongside the president in his wrenching meetings with the families of victims. He also remembers the pressure on Bush to make certain no further attacks were launched.
"People have forgotten about how intense it was and how frightened the American people were," he told National Journal. "Fighter jets patrolled over several American cities. Sniffers to detect dirty bombs were installed in a couple American cities, and the CIA told the White House it wasn't a question of 'if.' It was a question of 'when' the next attack would take place." That, Fleischer said, "was the context. Those were the times in which we lived."
Dana Perino, another press secretary to Bush, sees an unfairness in "revisiting decisions that were made in a time frame that we are not experiencing now. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was good reason to believe that there were many more plots that were about to be unleashed against Americans. We had just watched 3,000 Americans die in the most horrible murders and terrorist attacks the country had ever seen."
Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., a 31-year veteran of the CIA, made the same point in an article for The Washington Post on Sunday. He recalled one loud and persistent message from the public, the media, and Congress: "Do something! Do it now! Why didn't you do something sooner?" He added, "In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers urged us to do everything possible to prevent another attack on our soil."
Perino finds it "just inexplicable" how so many in Congress and in the public can have already forgotten how they felt on that crisp and sunny September day only 13 years ago. Both Rodriguez and Perino single out Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee and released the report Tuesday. Rodriguez quoted her 2002 statements of support of extraordinary measures. Perino calls it a surprising reversal for a Democrat whom "I have always found to be a fairly great, measured, commonsensical leader, especially on intelligence matters. To me, this seems surprisingly uncharacteristic of her."
There is, of course, historical precedent for later analysts to put aside the emotions present when controversial decisions were made. Certainly that is the case when historians condemn President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration for the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. No one today doubts this was a stain on American history, but few protested when the decision was made in wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the rampant fears of more Japanese attacks.
Obama himself may face some future judgment when today's passions are stilled and historians look at his use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Like Bush before him, he is armed with legal opinions supporting him. Like Bush, he argues he is justified because it protects Americans. But, also like Bush, there is no guarantee that his actions won't trouble later generations.
Of course, there were some even in 2001 who were tough on terrorists without being swept up in the do-anything pressure on the White House. One man who was consistently opposed to "enhanced interrogation" all along was the politician with the most credibility on the issue—Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who endured years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese when he was a prisoner of war. McCain was against it in 2001, against it when he was the Republican nominee for president in 2008, and against it again Tuesday when he took to the Senate floor to support Feinstein.
"I know, too, that bad things happen in war," McCain said Tuesday. "I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from."¦ I respect their dedication and appreciate their dilemma. But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend."
The emotions of 9/11 will play a decreasing role in the historical assessment of interrogations conducted in the years after the terrorist attack. It is, argues Fleischer, one sign that the government was successful in staving off further attacks. "It is always tough to judge things both in the here and now and from the comfort of later. That is not unusual in this country. The fact that people can judge it through a different lens later is a testament to the success in the here and now."
He recalled something Bush's National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, told Perino when there were disclosures about telephone surveillance programs. "We always thought the day would come when these things would be known. But we had to do these things to keep the American people safe." Now, thanks to the Senate report, that day of exposure has come and with it vivid reminders of one of the most emotional days in American history.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.