We need a terrorist detention and interrogation policy

Specialist 3rd Class Joshua R. Nistas/U.S. Navy

A detainee stands outside as part of yard recreation at Joint Task Force Guantanamo in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on June 8, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • America has a new policy of terrorist catch and release @marcthiessen

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  • The next president should take 4 immediate steps to rectify US flawed terrorism policy

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  • Gitmo should return to its original purpose as a strategic interrogation center

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This is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22.

The willingness of so many Republican presidential candidates to speak out in defense of waterboarding is encouraging. But the Bush administration only waterboarded three high-value terrorists out of more than 100 held by the CIA. The problem today is not simply that America is no longer waterboarding the Khalid Skeikh Mohammeds of the world; it is that, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, we are no longer capturing, detaining, and interrogating the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds of the world at all.

Under the Obama administration drone strikes have escalated dramatically, while live captures have plummeted. There is documented evidence that the Obama administration has chosen to kill senior terrorist leaders when the military recommended capturing them alive—because, according to a senior military officials, we “don’t have a detention policy or a set of facilities” to hold live captures. The CIA black sites are shut down and under Obama, Guantanamo Bay is not accepting any new guests. So the current administration simply kills terrorists instead of taking them in alive for questioning.

The problem with this approach is: dead terrorists cannot tell you their plans for new attacks. When we kill high-value terrorists instead of taking them in alive, we vaporize all the intelligence they possess—invaluable information we cannot get anywhere else about al Qaeda’s operations, recruits, safe houses, communications, and plans for new attacks. We need this intelligence to save lives.

The Obama administration inherited a treasure trove intelligence that had been gathered by the Bush administration from KSM and other CIA detainees. That information was critical to the administration’s greatest counterterrorism success: the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

But with each passing year, that intelligence becomes increasingly dated. New leaders rise through the ranks. New terrorists operatives are recruited. New plots are conceived. New methods are developed to communicate, move money, recruit operatives, and carry out attacks. And new networks—like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabab—emerge about which we know little. We are no longer replenishing the information we have about al Qaeda’s inner workings because we are no longer capturing and detaining the terrorist leaders who could refresh our knowledge about al Qaeda’s operations—which means the next administration will not enjoy the same intelligence inheritance its predecessor did.

Worse, the head of U.S. Special Operations command recently told Congress that because the Obama administration has no clear plan for handling suspected terrorist leaders if they are caught alive outside a war zone, it is U.S. policy that if such a captured terrorist cannot be tried in a U.S. court or transferred to the custody of an allied country, the prisoner is ultimately “let go.” In other words, America has a policy of terrorist catch and release.

This is unacceptable.  The next administration should take several immediate steps to rectify this situation:

1.    Resume capturing high-value terrorists alive whenever possible, instead of the current default of killing them with unmanned drones.

2.    Decide on a terrorist detention policy. Such a policy might include re-establishing secret prisons outside the United States. And it should include bringing captured terrorists to Guantanamo Bay again. Guantanamo has a state of the art CIA detention facility, which already houses KSM and other high-value detainees. This facility could easily accommodate fresh captures. The next president should restore Gitmo to its original purpose: as a strategic interrogation center.

3.    Put interrogation back in the CIA’s hands, and give interrogators the tools that they need to effectively question terrorists—tools beyond those currently in the Army Field Manual on interrogation.

4.    Keep those techniques secret. The key to the effectiveness of a revitalized terrorist interrogation program is making sure the terrorists do not know the limits of the techniques they will face.

The enemy we face today does not mass armies on borders or flotillas on the high seas. Terrorist conspire in secret, hide among civilians, and then emerge suddenly to attack us from within. Their plans to kill innocent men, women, and children are known only to a handful of evil men. And our ability to find out what is in the minds of these individuals could mean the difference between stopping the next attack and seeing bodies scattered in the streets—as we did on September 11, 2001.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI

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