Defusing the "Ticking Time Bomb" Excuse

Torture, it seems, just won't disappear from the American political landscape. Last week's revelation of the U.S. attorney general's authorization for the use of torture is one more chapter in a story that the American people will have to live with for time immemorial.

Yet, it comes, uncannily, at a time when the American public finally has some leadership in the effort to oppose torture, even at the highest levels of government. It has been three and a half years since the Abu Ghraib photos appeared and, rather than putting a firm end to the re-introduction of sixteenth century methods of obtaining information, that revelation merely served to open up a Pandora's box of possibilities for the use of torture. Americans were entranced by the techniques of Jack Bauer on 24, reassured by the idea of a president who would respond to the ticking bomb scenario by doing whatever it took, and only mildly impressed by arguments about morality, legality and the like.

But this will not be the reaction this time around. The most recent Democratic presidential candidate debate made it clear that America has traversed considerable ground of late in the discussion of torture. Notably, at the Hanover debate, Hillary Clinton took a giant step forward when she declared that she was opposed to torture on any grounds, in any circumstance. "As a matter of policy," she said, torture "cannot be American policy. Period."

Moderator Tim Russert then laid out the typical ticking time bomb scenario -- describing a suspect who has information about an imminent terrorist attack, and torture might be the only way to retrieve that information fast enough to save lives. Even after Russert pointed out her husband had defended the use of torture in such an extreme case, she refused to backtrack.

By holding her ground, she shifted the terms of the debate. Her fellow candidates Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and John Edwards agreed that torture cannot be a matter of policy, though they were not specifically responding to the ticking time bomb hypothetical. Barack Obama acknowledged the scenario as an impediment to full-scale backtracking on the Bush administration's torture rhetoric: "America cannot sanction torture... I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations, and I will make that judgment at that time."

Clinton's strong stance against torture in all circumstances, and the echoes of similar opinions by her Democratic colleagues, deserves more than passing notice. The position she established at the last debate was underscored by her recent decision to sign the American Freedom Campaign's anti-torture pledge. This represents a change in her attitude -- a change that may enable her to help lead the public discourse away from the torture debate, and on to more pressing matters of security, including a better understanding of the enemy and the development of more effective methods for deterring the terrorist threat.

A year ago, in an interview with The New York Daily News editorial board, Clinton allowed for a circumstance where "the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the President, and the President must be held accountable." She made this statement only days after opposing the Military Commission Act and roundly criticizing the tacit approval for torture that had come to define the Bush administration's detention policy. According to Clinton, torture doesn't work, it "water[s] the seeds of jihad," and it harms our image. But Clinton, at the time, was more timid than she is today about addressing the ticking-bomb scenario.

Other than John McCain, the Republican candidates have been particularly adept at placing the ticking bomb hypothetical at the center of the debate. And until recently, it's proven to be a conversation stopper. When this scenario is introduced, all our critical faculties are supposed to fall asleep. No one in their right mind, so reason the ticking bomb fantasists, would abstain from torture if using it could mean saving the country. As Rudy Guiliani puts it, "I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of." Duncan Hunter has said, "I would say... Get the information. Have it back within an hour... And I will take full responsibility. Get the information."

Hillary's newly strong opposition to torture is a view that, by definition, sees the ticking bomb exception for what it actually is -- namely, a diversion from the national security issues that should be commanding our attention. She is not saying she won't do what it takes to defend the country; she is casting aside the ticking bomb as a scenario that's of central importance to the discussion about how to ensure the nation's safety. And she is right to do so. The ticking bomb discussion has distracted policy makers, legislators, and the American public from the two topics that are desperate for serious attention; intelligence reform and a comprehensive detention policy.

The leading presidential candidate's public dismissal of the ticking time bomb exception also displays an improved understanding of al Qaeda's strategy and intentions. Al Qaeda is constructed in such a manner as to defy the last-minute scenario. Its leadership thinks long-term and always aims to mount multiple, simultaneous attacks. Meanwhile, al Qaeda's intentionally diffuse and fractured structure means that most players only know a little piece of the planned attack and no more. It is an apt replication of the blind men and the elephant; none of those tasked can see the whole picture.

The move away from the ticking bomb -- and towards a greater understanding of the complexities of the enemy we face -- can have a significant impact on U.S. counterterrorism policy. First, it places the entire burden for information on long-term strategic intelligence, without the offer of a fallback on last-minute information of a doubtful nature. Yet, as the country debated torture and its usefulness in protecting us in the wake of 9-11, the CIA has been systematically dismantled, subordinated to and even replaced by other intelligence agencies.

The need for long-term human intelligence has not been met by current policies. As Tim Wiener points out in his new book Legacy of Ashes, the CIA had turned away from strategic intelligence during the Clinton years, and that trend increased exponentially under Bush. As former acting director of the CIA John McLaughlin explained, in the post-Iraq years, the CIA became "the Wikipedia of Washington," and specifically the Pentagon. To this day, six years after the towers fell, the government has still not developed a system of spies to successfully infiltrate jihadist groups and provide us with the intelligence that could prevent another 9-11.

Yet infiltration remains the sine qua non of prevention when it comes to a terrorist attack. As Peter Bergen has reported, Feroz Ali Abbasi, one of the more graphic portraitists of the jihadi cause, eerily wrote about the absence of a Western presence inside the al Qaeda network. In his Guantanamo diary pages, Abbasi asked, "Where were America's, in fact the world's special agents on the ground in Afghanistan? They must have been there, but yet they did not catch wind of the fact that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack on an American target. This information being so commonly known amongst everybody in the training camps..."

The willingness to dispense with the ticking bomb exception also suggests it's an appropriate time to start thinking clearly about our detention policies. There are 30,000 prisoners of the war on terror now in U.S. custody. According to the Bush administration, these detainees have vital information, and the purpose of their detention is largely to collect that information. The size of the pool itself eradicates the possibility of a ticking bomb scenario; there is no way that this many individuals, unknown to us, can be sifted through in time to elicit such information, were it to exist.

If the CIA has become little more than a Wikipedia, so too have detainees. General Geoffrey Miller, who was a commanding officer at Guantanamo and later at Abu Ghraib, has said that detainees could offer "golden threads of intelligence." But the fact is that none of these detainees has had information about an imminent attack. Unlike the fictional al Qaeda operative being interrogated in a ticking bomb scenario, the Guantanamo detainee who has been in custody for five and half years, or the Iraqi militiamen rotting away in Camp Bucca in Iraq, will not be any more helpful if subjected to torture than if interrogated by normal procedures. Yet, because the U.S. wants to keep torture available as an interrogation option, it has refused to focus on creating a detention policy. Or, for that matter, developing the discipline to know whom to detain, whom to question, and what to ask them about. Torture here as elsewhere has been a distraction. Because we can't talk about it, we won't talk about anything.

The debate about torture isn't about moral right and wrong. It isn't about who's a sissy and who's a real man. It is not a contest between the ruthless and the squeamish. It is about smart versus stupid, proactive policy versus false bravado, true strength versus pseudo-strength. Only when we put this distracting debate behind us can we as a nation focus on the two policy issues that have been virtually ignored as a result of this distraction: intelligence and detention.

The sooner the country and the leading presidential candidates figure this out, the better. We will be safer and stronger strategically as a nation. Clinton seems to be in the lead in understanding this, and other Democratic candidates are finally starting to reject the ticking time bomb as well. As Bill Clinton said to Tim Russert, a few days after the debate, "I'm not even sure what I said is right now."