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On Consistency

February 5, 2010

Abdulmutallab is talking.  And he’s giving the FBI what they’re calling “useful, actionable” intelligence.  The White House released this information in response to complaints from a whole bunch of people that we weren’t getting any intel from the most recent attempt at terrorism from al Qaeda.  Unsurprisingly, the White House opportunists are trying to defend their method of interrogation on the grounds that “it works” (even though one of the most common counterarguments to enhanced interrogation was that it doesn’t matter if “it works”).  Here’s Nick Baumann, over at Drum’s blog:

On Tuesday night, the Obama administration fought back at the criticism with a barrage of leaks to the press. Abdulmutallab is cooperating with investigators, sources told the New York Times. Gaining his trust by involving his family was supposedly key to getting him to provide information on Al Qaeda. So the Obama administration is defending its way of dealing with terrorist suspects by claiming that its way works. (The Obama administration’s way is also the way it was almost always done before 9/11, and sometimes after—shoe-bomber Richard Reid was Mirandized, too, and no one raised a fuss.)

But in some ways, using the “it works” defense is too weak. Attorney General Eric Holder has a better idea: defend the Obama administration because, when it comes to Abdulmutallab, it’s following precedent, the Constitution, and the law.

Actually, in all ways the “it works” defense is too weak.  You know what “worked” on KSM?  Waterboarding.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the right thing to do.  That’s why any defense of the way we handle captured al Qaeda operatives based on the functionality of the process doesn’t hold water (no pun intended).  We handle detainees as criminals unless we happen to be at war with the people for whom the detainees are fighting.  And, in this case, that exception is quite applicable.

Elsewhere, Yglesias counters the “taking war seriously” meme:

But most of all, when you’re faced with serious problems you want to rely on seasoned investigators and their proven investigative techniques. You don’t take a problem “more seriously” by handing it over to the military or the CIA. The you take a problem seriously by having it addressed by the appropriate agencies. If we’d handled this in the blood-soaked manner preferred by the right, who knows what kind of nonsense information people would be sorting through right now.

Of course, this misses the point yet again.  The idea that the President isn’t taking the war seriously because he wants a civilian trial for Abdulmutallab and KSM doesn’t really make sense, but whether taking the issue more seriously calls for treating an al Qaeda operative as a civilian or an enemy combatant is irrelevant.  It’s a war against al Qaeda, so we have to treat an agent of al Qaeda as an enemy combatant even if questioning by the FBI yields more useful information.  The FBI is a law enforcement agency.  The police and the army shouldn’t be mixed like some sort of counter-al-Qaeda-salad.  It’s either one or the other.

On that note, this doesn’t matter either:

A recent study by the liberal Center for American Progress found that in the very few cases of captured terrorists being tried in tribunals, the defendants were given lighter sentences than comparable cases in the criminal justice system.

…The study found that in two of the three terrorism cases handled by tribunals, the defendants were given significantly shorter sentences than comparable cases that went through criminal courts.

That’s, uh, also not relevant.  We shouldn’t be using certain devices because they allow us to give longer sentences to our enemies, whether that involves civilian trial or military tribunal.  We use these devices because they are appropriate for the situation.  In this situation, military tribunals are appropriate because the guys being tried are servicemen accused of committing war crimes for al Qaeda, an organization with which we are at war.  We don’t select a particular court in order to get a conviction—the verdict should be left to the jury and the sentence left to the judge (a novel concept, I know).  We shouldn’t try to bend the rules or use a combination of whatever our best rules are to combat our enemies.  We should just follow the rules.

It would be nice to get some consistency from the powers that be on our al Qaeda policy.  But, for now, people who call out conservatives for the “it works” defense of enhanced interrogation techniques can quit it with the “it works” defense of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation.  It’s not good enough, in either case.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I changed the word “ground” in the first paragraph to “grounds”.  Sue me.

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