David Ignatius, recently ranked number 14 in Salon’s list of the worst opinion writers in America, has demonstrated his skills in another effort published yesterday. “If you don’t like the CIA tactics that led to the capture and interrogation of al-Qaeda operatives,” he asks, “do you think it’s better to vaporize the militants from 10,000 feet?” The limits that Obama has placed on “enhanced interrogation,” he argues, “have had the perverse effect of encouraging the CIA to adopt a more lethal and less supple policy than before.”
The argument is bizarre on any level. It is not clear from an ethicist’s perspective that kidnapping people, holding them outside of legal accountability, and torturing them until they turn into human eggplants is any more acceptable than using drones to target and kill them, but these are not the only options available to a great power. The reason that the laws of war condemn “disappearings” and torture, making such conduct universally punishable, but still give combatants broad license to kill their adversaries, is that taking killing out of warfare is a hopeless cause, while eliminating or punishing certain specific practices has been a project of the community of nations since roughly the time of the American Revolution.
The rhetorical point also rests on a severe distortion of facts. The decision to end the blacksites, made by George W. Bush, was not driven by the clamoring of critics but by the CIA’s own desire not to have to run a prison system. This was beyond the CIA’s charter, its leaders argued, and they weren’t any good at it. The history of the blacksites run from 2001-2006, to the extent it has made its way to the public stage, bears this out: it is riddled with corruption, mistakes, and misconduct, most of which flow from the agency’s apparent inability to exercise effective oversight over the system. Moreover, although the suggestion that Obama has ended CIA renditions operations is hard to assess, we have clear evidence that renditions continued as recently as last year, as in this botched and embarrassing case in Afghanistan.
Finally, Ignatius’s column is totally disconnected from the current national security dialogue inside the Obama administration. Recently the administration got a lot of blowback and criticism over its decision to tout a plan to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen, linked by the Justice Department to acts of terror. The step raised questions about the use of drones outside of an obvious theater of war and about the desirability of attempting to seize and interrogate prominent terrorists rather than simply kill them. The recent announcement by Yemeni authorities of a manhunt for al-Awlaki may very well signal a shift in posture. Ignatius might try interviewing those involved in the current policy debate, rather than outsiders like Michael Hayden and Robert Grenier.