Ted Koppel: 'The Price of Security'

A TOWN MEETING

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Ted Koppel, right, hosts a Discovery Channel town meeting in Silver Spring, Md., Sept. 10, 2006. Discovery Channel hide caption

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Town meeting

From left, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Paul McNulty, Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT), former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Sept. 11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni and Ted Koppel during the taping of a Discovery Channel town meeting in Silver Spring, Md., Sept. 10, 2006.

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'THE PRICE OF SECURITY'

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

In The Price of Security, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes the fears that terrorists would attack the United States with a nuclear device. Discovery Channel hide caption

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Watch video highlights from Ted Koppel's Discovery Channel documentary:

 

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Ted Koppel at Camp X-Ray i i

Ted Koppel reports from Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. military's detention facility was used temporarily to house detainees after the Sept. 11 attacks. Discovery Channel hide caption

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Ted Koppel at Camp X-Ray

Ted Koppel reports from Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. military's detention facility was used temporarily to house detainees after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Discovery Channel

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress has passed new laws to combat terrorism. The Bush administration is pushing the limits on intelligence-gathering. Thousands of suspects have been detained at home and abroad. But many people wonder whether the balance has shifted too far away from freedom in favor of security.

NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel has prepared a documentary,The Price of Security, premiering on the Discovery Channel on Sept. 10. He also hosts a town meeting (audio), where he discusses these issues with current and former members of the Bush administration, military experts and policy analysts.

Koppel discussed the documentary with Talk of the Nation Host Neal Conan. Below are excerpts from their conversation.

Neal Conan: At the beginning and then at the end of this documentary, you focus on the fear that was manifest on 9/11 and the hours and days that followed, and the conviction of key administration officials that what we saw was not a criminal act but an act of war.

Ted Koppel: Initially, Neal, on the very first day — on 9/11 itself — when the president came on, he spoke of it as being a criminal act. He referred to bringing the perpetrators to justice. But that focus of what happened on 9/11 as being a criminal act which the police or the FBI would have to pursue and then bringing people to justice — in other words, into our court system — that lasted less than a day.

By the next day, he was already speaking of this as being an act of war. And from that day forth, the Bush administration has treated what happened on 9/11 and what they fear might happen at some point in the future as being an ongoing war.

Conan: Not a single act, not an incident, but the first act in a campaign. The first act in a war.

Koppel: But certainly not a criminal act in the sense that if you find someone in the commission of a criminal act, you almost have to wait until they've done it. Only then can you send the police after them, and then you have to read them their rights and give them access to a lawyer. The difference in a war, of course, is that as one former associate White House counsel put it, sometimes the application of justice is as slight as the application of the pressure of an 18 year old's finger on a trigger.

Conan: The thinking that led to these new security policies comes out of an unprecedented sense of urgency. You talked with current and former administration officials who were at the White House and were involved in the decision-making those days.

Koppel: In a senseā€¦ the White House believed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and believes to this day that there is the possibility not of another 9/11, but of something infinitely worse, of the weapons in the hands of terrorists being weapons of mass destruction — be it a chemical weapon, a biological weapon or a nuclear weapon. And if that were to happen, it would undermine everything that we stand for. Therefore, we are able to turn certain American laws and certain American legal preconceptions on their head because we have to.

Conan: Less than a month after the events of Sept. 11, the U.S. military began a military campaign in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. One of the most controversial issues since Sept. 11 is how the United States has dealt with alleged terrorists, alleged enemy combatants that were picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan — some turned over war lords, some found out in Pakistan, and many of them who found their way to Guantanamo Bay.

Koppel: And it's key that they not be called prisoners of war. Because even though we are in a war and the administration uses the paradigm of war at all times, these men are very pointedly referred to as detainees. And the question of how long they are to be detained is really an open one, which is essentially true in any war. A prisoner of war is always held until the war is over. The difference with this one is no one really expects this war to be over not only anytime soon, but probably not even within some of our lifetimes.

Conan: A lot of people have a hard time even defining victory in the war.

Koppel: Exactly. I mean, it is an ongoing process. But it has been one that has caused some legal and ethical nightmares for the people who've had to handle these detainees.

Conan: As the documentary stresses, in the days after some of these people were picked up — and some of them were al-Qaida members, some high-ranking al-Qaida members — the administration, based on this fear of the existential threat, felt that we needed to find information. Whatever information they had needed to be extracted and thus begins the — well, you'll excuse me — but the torturous process of ending up quite near torture.

Koppel: Yes. And the question of where, for example, strenuous interrogation ends and torture begins is one that the administration actually tried to define. There is a young man who worked for the Justice Department at the time by the name of John Yoo who wrote a now infamous 50 page memorandum in which he rather painfully — again, no pun intended — but rather painfully tried to define in the course of that memorandum where appropriate interrogation techniques ended and torture began. It's a very, very difficult thing to do.

Conan: You interviewed Alberto Mora — the Navy's most senior lawyer at that time — who raised questions about torture after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of dogs, stress positions which you were just talking about, and non-injurious physical contact on detainees. After reading memos and documents about this, Mora was surprisedā€¦ [He] told you that he thinks U.S. law should criminalize the application of cruelty, but he also said there were circumstances under which he himself might apply cruelty.

Koppel: He went actually further than that, Neal. He said there were circumstances under which he would apply torture. And what he was saying and the distinction he was drawing — and it's a really interesting and I think important distinction. He said, let's assume for the sake of argument that we had our hands on someone who knew about a ticking bomb, a nuclear device that was going to go off in an American city. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives at stake.

He said under those circumstances, I might apply torture to that person in order to prevent that from happening. But, he said, it should only be done in the context of a legal system in which I applied torture knowing that I would then be subject to legal action being taken against me for having broken the law. And the distinction that he was making is that the Bush administration tried to redefine it so that interrogators who actually were using certainly inhumane treatment and possibly torture had been told before the fact, don't worry about it. You're covered. You will not be prosecuted.

That — as I think he correctly points out and others on the program correctly point out — leads to a downward slide where inhumane treatment quickly becomes cruel treatment, quickly becomes torture if people are under the impression that they're not going to be prosecuted for it. So I respect him for the honesty of his response. That he says look, I would do it. But I want to do it only in the context of knowing that I could be prosecuted for having done it afterwards.

Conan: And administration officials, Secretary Rumsfeld, have said look, there were abuses, but they were very few. It was not systematic. These were rogues, situations happening in the night, according to the investigation of Abu Ghraib.

Koppel: Well, I mean, that is — I think Secretary Rumsfeld was being a little bit disingenuous in saying that, just as he was when he said as soon as we found out we put a stop to the practice. Mora had been trying to bring it to Rumsfeld's attention for about six weeks, and it was only after he, Mora, said I'm going to put this down in writing. And there will be a memorandum to the file from the general counsel saying the United States government is doing this. When he said that, all of a sudden that day, it ended.

Conan: Your documentary also covers an aspect of the balance between security and civil liberties that may affect us all, and that's the gathering of electronic surveillance. There's an extraordinary moment in the documentary where you describe the president, the White House, putting out a memo to all its various intelligence agencies and saying what do you need? What do you need to really do the job now after 9/11?

Koppel: Actually, primarily being put out to the National Security Agency. And they come back and they say well, you know, we'd like to be able to tap into people's phones if we could.

Koppel: As a reporter for The Washington Post whose beat this is told us, they really didn't expect the president to come back and say yes. But he did.

Conan: And this has gone on since then in a series of presidential authorizations. I think it's every 30 days or so the president re authorizes this. Which went on, nobody knowing about it, until The New York Times disclosed it.

Koppel: The New York Times disclosed it. A federal court has now said it is unconstitutional. But it is still in practice because the administration is appealing that federal court's finding. And very likely, the federal court decision will be overturned. So it will continue to happen.

Conan: Ted, as you evaluate this, they have access to all kinds of intelligence that you and I simply don't have access to. The American people don't have access to. Is there any way to know whether the threat justifies these actions?

Koppel: No. Because what they say is absolutely true. We — that is, those who are protecting the United States — have to be successful 100 percent of the time. They — that is to say, the terrorists, or those who wish harm to the United States — only have to be successful once.

Now when you're dealing with that kind of an equation, there is nothing you can do. I mean, I haven't said it in the program, but I'll say it here. You want absolutely security? You want to be totally protected against terrorism? I have a proposal for you: A one way ticket to Panmunjom in North Korea. Guarantee you, they have absolute security. You will have absolute protection against terrorism. There is no terrorism in North Korea except the terrorism, of course, that is wielded by the state itself. Because there is no privacy, there are no constitutional rights, there is no freedom. But you've got security.

So at some point or another, this is all a calibration between how much security and how much freedom.

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