Obama doesn’t want to have to interrogate the terrorists, so he just orders them killed. Are we losing valuable information by our failure to interrogate them?
The elimination of Anwar al-Awlaki last week was a splendid achievement. Awlaki was a terror guidance counselor whose ghastly roster of alumni included two of the 9/11 hijackers, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, would-be Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and participants in more than a half dozen other terrorist incidents.
An American citizen fluent in English, Awlaki was a formidable recruiter and tactician. The attack on him also killed another American, Samir Khan, who barely a week ago published the seventh edition of a slick al Qaeda magazine called Inspire. Among its articles: an exhortation of readers to imitate the exploits of Hasan, and detailed instructions in how to build bombs.
It may be that capturing Awlaki and Khan wasn’t feasible logistically. But what could we have done had we captured them? Were they subjected to the interrogations techniques renounced by the Obama administration with great fanfare, they could have provided a wealth of intelligence on potential attacks and attackers.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is probably the most famous but certainly not the only captured terrorist to have broken following experience with these harsh techniques. Indeed the mere availability of that program caused at least one captured al Qaeda operative to cooperate once he learned he was in CIA custody, even though he didn’t know precisely what the harsh techniques entailed.
President Obama abolished that program within 48 hours of taking office and replaced it with no classified program. Instead he announced to the world, and to our enemies, that henceforth all interrogations carried out by anyone acting under the authority of the United States would be limited to the techniques set forth in the Army Field Manual, a handbook meant to be suitable to the most raw recruit acting in the field without supervision. The Army Field Manual has been available on the Internet for years and is regularly used by terrorist groups for training in resistance to interrogation.
We don’t have a coherent detention policy governing the capture of terrorists of any standing, let alone totemic figures like Awlaki. Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden, testified that our base at Bagram in Afghanistan cannot be used long term because the host country resists such use, and current administration policy takes Guantanamo Bay “off the table” as a detention location. That leaves three alternatives: (1) transfer detainees to the U.S. for trial in civilian courts, assuming evidence exists that they committed a crime and that such evidence has been gathered in accordance with rules that permit its introduction in civilian court, such as a recorded chain of custody for physical objects; (2) render detainees to third countries where concern for conditions of confinement and the limits of interrogation techniques are likely to be less exquisite than ours, and where in any event we would receive only second-hand intelligence, if any; or (3) release detainees outright.
Although Guantanamo, based on my own observation in 2008, is in fact a humane, state-of-the-art facility, the Obama administration apparently took it off the table in 2009 when it decided to bring KSM and the other accused 9/11 plotters to downtown New York City to stand trial in civilian court. Congress prevented that by resort to its power over the purse and barred use of any federal funds to bring any prisoner from Guantanamo to this country.
Not wishing to forgo the saintly option of a civilian trial for new detainees, the administration has simply refused to take any additional prisoners to Guantanamo. Instead, this most self-consciously virtuous of administrations has set the default option at Predator strikes.
Matt Kaminski on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Why fret about the difficulty of eliciting information from captured detainees, or of detaining them at all, when we have drones available to kill rather than capture? Well, drones are aptly named, in the sense that they do not guide themselves—they need human beings, who need intelligence. If we are to win this war against an enemy that occupies no particular territory, we need intelligence. That can be gathered electronically but electronic wizardry has its limits.
The trove we gathered by hand from bin Laden’s hideout, and the valuable facts we learned from the lips of detainees like KSM—or Abdel Rahim al-Nashiri, who is about to be tried, after a couple of false starts, before a military commission at Guantanamo for his involvement in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors—are gifts that keep on giving.
The same day we learned that Awlaki had gone to his reward, we learned also that Haji Mali Khan—a leader of the Haqqani Network, a terrorist-cum-organized-crime clan that has killed and recruited others to kill Americans for years, and last month conducted a day-long assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul—was captured in that city by NATO forces.
The Haqqani Network operates with the active cooperation of Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. Imagine what we could learn from Khan. Regrettably, it appears that most of what we will be able to do is imagine—because it’s currently anyone’s guess where, whether, and under what circumstances Khan will be detained.
There are better and more effective alternatives. When and if the time comes that the current administration stops trying to define itself simply as the antithesis of its predecessor, perhaps the intelligence gatherers who are our only reliable defense will have those alternatives available.
Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge, was attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009.
I reprinted this in full because it is excellent.