The killing of Osama Bin Laden has done something miraculous: It has proved everyone in Washington right. Did you think the war in Afghanistan was a waste of effort, or did you think it was the right war at the right time? Did you defend George W. Bush’s interrogation policies, or did you raise a glass when Barack Obama ended them? Whatever you were saying, you were dead on. Take two examples from the past 24 hours.
“This idea—we caught Bin Laden because of waterboarding—I think is a misstatement,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to reporters on Tuesday. “This whole concept of how we caught Bin Laden is a lot of work over time by different people, and putting a puzzle together.” He emphasized it again. “I do not believe this is a time to celebrate waterboarding. I believe this is a time to celebrate hard work.”
This was not what Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., had been saying a day earlier.
“We obtained that information through waterboarding,” the chairman of the House Homeland Security told Bill O’Reilly. “So for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to Bin Laden.”
Washington has just seen Obama approve a successful, extra-sovereign hit on the head of al-Qaida. What does that do to two years—more than that, if you go back to the campaign—of the hawks’ consensus that Obama’s feckless war-on-terror strategy can’t possibly work? How does it change the way the war on terror is conducted? The capture of Bin Laden is a rare thing: an event that inspires victory celebrations in the streets, without the sort of changes that usually come after a victory.
Start with waterboarding and “enhanced interrogations.” Supporters of the old Bush policy started spinning the Bin Laden capture as a validation pretty soon after the news broke. “It’s an enhanced interrogation program that we put in place back in our first term,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News. “It wouldn’t be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.” And on Tuesday night, pressed by Brian Williams, Leon Panetta confirmed that some of the information that led to Bin Laden—a manhunt that stretched over a decade—was gleaned from “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
How might this have worked? On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was captured. He was interrogated, but according to a report declassified in 2009, he was a fount of mostly useless information until he was broken by 183 waterboardings and more than a week of sleep deprivation. After that, he was pliable. And according to the Associated Press, it was KSM who provided the nickname that eventually allowed the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden’s courier.
Did the information come because KSM was waterboarded, or could you say that KSM was waterboarded at one point in time, and he provided key information at another point in time? There’s just enough fog there to allow everyone to walk out of this with a fact he or she likes. On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein repeatedly told reporters that the information that led to Bin Laden did not come from enhanced interrogation. “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted,” said Feinstein. “And in my mind, nothing justifies the procedures that were used.”
Graham, who was one of the GOP’s leading opponents of waterboarding throughout the Bush years, agreed with Feinstein—but not entirely. After criticizing waterboarding and agreeing that “problems at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib caused us great misery” as recruiting tools, he suggested that the outcome in Abbottabad was a validation of what he’d been saying all along, as when he’d warned the Obama White House not to ban any other interrogation techniques that were not in the military field manual.
“The best way to get information from people is to hold them and get a rapport with them,” he said. “I believed in enhanced interrogation techniques being classified. [Now] they’re off the table. Big mistake.”
The point: Everyone is still dug in. Bin Laden’s death was satisfying, clarifying—and it may not change much about the permanent war on terror that began on 9/11. In the wake of the news, the FBI updated its “Most Wanted” list and went on “war footing.” With the exception of the debate over Afghanistan and Pakistan funding—where the supporters of the status quo greatly outnumber the critics who think we can “declare victory and go home”—the discussion in Washington since then has been about how Bin Laden’s death can validate the policies already in effect. Asked about that on Tuesday, Graham said that the death of Bin Laden was an opportunity to step up the effort in Afghanistan. Later, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry confronted critics who want to punish Pakistan by cutting its aid.
“If you want a radical Islamic government having possession of nuclear weapons and running Pakistan,” said Kerry, “then you can go off in a kneejerk way that makes matters worse. I’m not for making matters worse.”
That was clear on Tuesday in discussions of a priority that’s been mostly ignored as Congress has debated debt ceilings and how best to repeal all of Nancy Pelosi’s works. Some provisions of the Patriot Act will sunset this month. There’s no serious partisan disagreement over extending them. Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder proved it.
“We will continue to utilize the critical authorities provided under the provisions of the Patriot Act,” said Holder, “which I hope Congress will move promptly to reauthorize for a substantial period of time.”
Later in the day, Mitch McConnell was asked what, if anything, the killing of Bin Laden would do for the Patriot debate. “Most of us believe it’s been an effective tool in the war on terror,” said McConnell. “There’s some evidence that some of those tools may have been helpful [in getting Bin Laden]. I hope if it has any impact at all, it will be in the direction of extending the current provisions.”