Op-Ed: Obama Will Face 'Awful Choices' President-elect Barack Obama has promised to ban some forms of torture, to end rendition and to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Former Central Intelligence Agency officer Reuel Marc Gerecht says: "Sounds uplifting. Don't bet on it happening."
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Op-Ed: Obama Will Face 'Awful Choices'

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Op-Ed: Obama Will Face 'Awful Choices'

Op-Ed: Obama Will Face 'Awful Choices'

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Now, the Talk of the Nation opinion page. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on promises to ban enhanced interrogation methods like water boarding and the use of extraordinary rendition.

Sounds uplifting, writes to former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, who adds, don't bet on it happening. In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Gerecht wrote, Mr. Obama will soon face the same awful choices that confronted George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and he could well be forced to accept the essential feature of their anti-terrorist methods, extraordinary rendition.

Will ugly methods inevitably have to be used to keep the country safe? Call us, 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. Well, Marc Gerecht is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. REUEL MARC GERECHT (Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies): Pleasure.

CONAN: And you describe a scenario. The president-elect, you write, has spoken often about being more aggressive in pursuit of al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. Let's say, you write, that U.S. Special Forces go in, capture suspects with computers that say there's a big attack coming on the U.S. but don't say where or when.

Mr. GERECHT: Yeah. I think Pakistan and Afghanistan really is the only region where we're likely to confront a situation where American soldiers, Special Forces, could capture individuals who could have terrorist information, be privy to ongoing operations that could truly scare the administration.

CONAN: And so, these plans, found either papers or computers, but they don't say where or when, and you've got suspects who might know where...

Mr. GERECHT: Right. And I think, if you do the combination of the administration, which is very, very scared. At the same time, you have an administration which is trying to deal with the conundrum of what do you do with the detainees down in Guantanamo. The last thing they do want is more - are more enemy combatants, and they want the information. I think it will be extremely tempting for them to return to a policy of rendition which both the Clinton and the Bush administrations practiced.

CONAN: Remind us of the definition of rendition.

Mr. GERACHT: Well, rendition in this sense really means to send people that you initially have in your custody, to send them abroad to an allied country and allow that allied country to interrogate them, usually quite harshly.

CONAN: And the options, as you put it, in that scenario would be for the president of the United States to look out on a scenario where the CIA, I mean, your former colleagues would be limited to methods, non-coercive methods or sending them to - you write it, I don't - Jordan, where more harsh methods might be used.

Mr. GERECHT: Yeah. I think it's going to be very, very difficult to get the CIA back in the business of interrogation. I think they'll not want...

CONAN: Enhanced interrogation.

Mr. GERECHT: Enhanced interrogation. They will not want to do it. You'd have to have really congressional approval of it. The president's word, I think, would be just insufficient, and the option would still be there if you're confronted with a situation that you would consider an extremist, which is entirely possible, that the reports - the agency would certainly come to you and say, oh by the way, rendition has proven successful for the acquisition of information.

I think that is what the Central Intelligence Agency would tell President Obama. It's certainly what they told President Clinton. That's what they told President Bush, and I think the temptation there would be quite strong if, in fact, they thought they had a real threat.

CONAN: And you're right about the Clinton administration using these techniques. I've not heard senior members of the Clinton administration admit that they used to rendition. They sent suspects overseas to be tortured by other governments.

Mr. GERECHT: Well, I mean, I think it is known. I mean, I quote in that comment by Walt Slocombe, who was the undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and I think he's being more honest and frank than most when he described the difference between the Democratic and Republican rendition, that Democrats drill air holes in the boxes.

The Clinton administration did not use it nearly as aggressively as the Bush administration. I think that's for obvious reasons. 9/11 had occurred, and it became an option now. The Bush administration obviously also went in the direction with a very small group of individuals at the top of al-Qaeda's leadership to use enhanced techniques and make Americans responsible for those interrogations.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest on the Opinion Page this week, Reuel Marc Gerecht. He's a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracy. 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Stephen(ph), Stephen with us from Madison, Wisconsin.

STEPHEN (Caller): The experts say that torture doesn't work. The best way to get information is to befriend the subject. But I have to comment. Obama is getting very bad advice. Escalating U.S. aggression in Afghanistan is a very bad idea. And this guest claims that 9/11 was done by some guy in a cave? 9/11 was a frame up and an inside job, a hoax to get U.S. invasion of the oil countries. Investigate 9/11. You'll find out that the Bush shadow government was behind it and get this mad man off your air. ..TEXT: CONAN: I'm not sure which one of us can fit quite that description, Stephen, but we thank you for your call. The one point that he does make is absolutely correct. A lot of experts do say that torture does not work. We had a guy on the show named - under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander who was a military interrogator in Iraq.

He said they came in using new techniques after the enhanced interrogation techniques were no longer acceptable, and befriending people, even in real-time scenarios - they were talking about people who were marching out of there, had information about people who were about to set off vests that were going to kill hundreds of people. In real-time scenarios, their techniques worked, and he said torture did not.

Mr. GERECHT: I'm skeptical of the interrogation techniques that are used in Iraq. Those are decisively different from those that we used at the black sides run by the agency. And I think, if you were - I mean, the agency doesn't talk about it publicly. But privately, they certainly give the impression, a very strong impression, certainly, that they gave to U.S. officials that water boarding does work.

I'm - you know, anyone who's been involved in interrogations and debriefings would certainly tell you that the best way is that if the opponent - if the individual wants to cooperate is the soft approach. You want to psychologically control the individual to essentially confess all that he knows. Now, the holy warriors often don't come in that category. They often, in fact, are there because they are quite willing to die.

Now, if you are confronted with a situation where the individual does not wish to cooperate, which I believe was the case, for example, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or the 9/11 mastermind. Then you believe that you have an ongoing, possibly mass-casualty terrorist operation. I think the senior officials, be they Democrat or Republican, are going to be very, very tempted to use force because, again, I suspect that the track record on this at the CIA sites is such that - I'm not sure that a senior administration in a difficult situation would say, no, I don't believe it. ..TEXT: CONAN: Let's get Jimmy(ph) on the line. Jimmy is calling us from Goshen, Indiana.

JIMMY (Caller): Yeah, hello. I must agree. It's a mixed bag, obviously. You're hearing a lot of the discussions stemming to the Geneva Conventions in so far as not wanting to torture enemy combatants or simulate torture to get the information out of them. Well, it's my opinion that a lot of the Geneva Convention accords were drafted for nation-state battles, one large nation-state against another, in the hopes that, you know, one force, if capturing the other forces, that they'll be civilized and, you know, treat them with some respect. Now...

CONAN: Jimmy, it would not take a good lawyer long to make a case that - until those laws are superseded, those conventions - and they are American law. Until those laws are superseded, they do apply. And, in fact, that if you violate them, you're committing a war crime.

JIMMY: Well, and perhaps that's indeed accurate, and I think it's a difficult situation for any American leader to get in, and I do think we have an obligation of knowledge and civility, and we want to bring that model to the world. But I also know that, without extracting information by any means necessary, in my opinion, we're dealing with a group of people that have no regard for their own life, let alone regard for other human beings, we're going to see a continued escalation, and I believe it's a mistake to start tying the hands of the American administration because of commitment to things more noble.

I agree. I think it is noble, but I think it's a bad decision to draw a line in the sand when, in fact, Mr. Obama has not been confronted with some of the intelligence and some of the urgency of the situation that require these unprecedented methods.

CONAN: And that's precisely the point you make.

Mr. GERECHT: I mean, I think that's why rendition will be highly tempted. It certainly was tempting for both the Clinton and the Bush administrations because then you don't have to get into the situation of the Geneva conventions and whether they apply to members of al-Qaeda because you're not holding them. They've gone some place else, and you will simply deny it. And the deniability of foreign liaison operations is very easy. It's much easier to deny those, it's much more difficult to prove the contrary than if you are, in fact, holding these individuals yourself and interrogating them.

Now, vis-a-vis from the intelligence perspective, there's no doubt. If you do these things yourself, it's far better. You have control of the operations. You have control of everything that is done, and there's a compromise that's - certainly to the quality of intelligence and also the dependency that develops between the CIA and foreign intelligence services.

However, again, if you add up all the plusses and minuses, I think it is, again, highly likely that the future administration, the Obama administration, if, again, confronted with the situation that really scares them, I think they'll go back in the direction of rendition.

CONAN: There was a situation where, once suspected these things we're going on, journalists were able to, you know, trail tail numbers of various aircraft and figure out where this was going on and embarrass some governments pretty substantially.

Mr. GERECHT: Yeah. I think the agency was a bit sloppy after 9/11, and I'm sure they paid attention to that. If this were to happen again, I suspect they will be somewhat better at it.

CONAN: Jimmy, thanks very much for the phone call.

JIMMY: Thank you. I appreciate it.

CONAN: OK. We're talking about rendition on the Opinion Page this week with Reuel Marc Gerecht. His op-ed appeared in the New York Times last week. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Peter on the line, Peter with us from San Francisco.

PETER (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Peter.

PETER: Yes, hi. I was wondering - although it may be highly effective in order to get information, if part of our policy is really going to be based in the democratization of certain countries in the Middle East, are we sacrificing a bit of our own efforts by practicing extraordinary rendition and kind of giving the defacto approval of human rights abuses in the same countries that we're supposed to be democratizing?

CONAN: Well, it's...

Mr. GERECHT: It's an excellent question, and I would answer that yes, I mean, if one...

PETER: That's the shortest.

Mr. GERECHT: If one moment, you have the secretary of state land and say that it would really be better if you have more reform, you respect more civil liberties and then, you know, in the backdoor, you have a CIA black flight that comes in, and you have individuals being rendered to the foreign intelligence service, I think it's fair to say that the regime in place is going to wink at the secretary of state and realize they have a fairly firm relationship with the side of the U.S. government that, in this case, matters most.

PETER: And how serious about democratization or how - the countries in which it's being practiced the most, are they countries that are high up on our foreign policy radar screen for democratization?

Mr. GERECHT: I don't think any of the countries right now are terribly high up on the totem pole for democratization. We'll have to see where President Obama goes with that. I suspect it will come back to foreground because the people in the Middle East will actually put it there. And say, Egypt, for example, you know, I'd be very, very surprised if you see the push for democracy in Egypt to get less. I expect the Muslim Brotherhood and others will continue to push on that issue. So it could be an interesting point of contention if the U.S. government were to try to render people to Egypt. ..TEXT: CONAN: And even if, in eventuality, that the Muslim Brotherhood or somebody took over, there'd probably interesting records that they might be able to produce.

Mr. GERECHT: Oh, sure. I mean, all this depends upon secrecy on the other end, and there's no doubt about it, in this types of circumstances, you can be embarrassed if certain things come to light.

CONAN: Peter, thanks for very much for the call.

PETER: Thanks a lot. ..TEXT: CONAN: He raises the question, how much is the moral high ground worth?

Mr. GERECHT: I'm not sure we're really talking about the moral high ground. I mean, I think, in cases of extreme fear, the moral high ground, you know, really does disappear quite quickly and the - what you might say the pragmatic considerations, the intelligence considerations come to foreground, which is why, if you were to add up the relationships, the intelligence relationships the United States has with dictatorships in the Middle East, they have remained, I think, fairly strong.

CONAN: Let's get Anna on the line, Annaa with us from Amesville in Ohio.

ANNA (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Reuel. Several other guests earlier said, you know, it's true. I mean, if you're a media junkie like myself, you hear people like General McCaffrey and (unintelligible) and Bruzenski(ph) and Ray McGovern and numerous other CIA - former CIA analysts and other members who have said it's incredibly ineffective, torturing, so - and the only two people I've heard say that it's effective are Vice President Cheney and I guess - I don't know if that's what you're saying, that it is effective. So I'm wondering, do you personally support torture? And can you give specific examples of where it's worked? And do you think, as a nation, that we'll witness those who changed the law in the Office of Legal Counsel so that torture could take place, do you think we'll witness them held accountable?

Mr. GERECHT: Well, on the first score, I think the only people who would really know on whether enhanced interrogation works are the relatively few CIA officers and senior CIA officials who have reviewed the collection of intelligence from the senior membership of al-Qaeda. Now, I think I'm fairly confident in saying that the CIA's position on this is that enhanced interrogation proved quite successful against the very few individuals that they used it against. The - on the other...

CONAN: We have their word for that and their word that it was a...

Mr. GERECHT: Right. But I have to say, I think intuitively and historically, there is a reason why aggressive interrogation or torture has been out there for quite some time. It's not there just because men tend to be sadistic, though that is certainly a factor - is that it tends to work. I think, in the hands of a "talented individual," if I may put that in quotes, you know, the truth tends to stick.

Falsehoods do not. They disappear. And I certainly had the pleasure of discovering through two or three days of being in an intensive interrogation position where the agency worked on me, I did discover quite quickly that it was extremely difficult to remember accurately those things which you made up and imagined. It was much easier to remember those things which, in fact, were true.

CONAN: And, Anna, we'll pursue that last point about whether those who authorized this kind of thing will be held accountable when we get some Obama administration officials on the program because they're the ones who are going to decide that.

ANNA: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And Marc Reuel Gerecht, thank you - Reuel Marc Gerecht, to get it right, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Mr. GERECHT: My pleasure.

CONAN: Reuel Marc Gerecht, his op-ed appeared in the New York Times last week. It's called "Out of Sight." There's a link to it on our website at npr.org/talk. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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