No one favors torture. Torture is already illegal under both U.S. and international law. Nonetheless, the United States is fighting a war against ruthless enemies who obey no rules. We cannot afford to treat all of them with kid gloves all the time.
On the battlefield, we can — and do — kill our enemies. Those we don't kill but only capture should be treated humanely, despite the fact that they do not return the favor when they seize Americans. But those who have information that could save lives must be interrogated effectively. That does not imply torture. It does imply measures that the McCain amendment would ban.
Contrary to what you might have heard, "ticking time-bomb" scenarios are not uncommon. Consider the situation faced by Army Lt. Col. Allen West: Fighting near Tikrit, he captured a suspect who refused to divulge information about a planned ambush.
West fired his revolver to frighten the suspect. The trick worked. The terrorist talked. American lives were saved. And West was accused of torture, charged with assault and drummed out of the military. Next time, will an officer in the same situation decide to let Americans be killed — believing that's what Americans back home demand?
Even more common than the ticking time bomb is the scenario in which a "high-value" suspect is captured, for example a senior al-Qaeda commander who might not know about an imminent attack but who does have information on terrorist recruiting, training and communications.
In this circumstance, torture is not only unneeded but also unhelpful. But the use of "stress and duress" techniques, including rewards for cooperation and punishments for defiance, can, over time, induce a subject to reveal what he knows.
Good policy requires clarity and accountability. Though torture is to be avoided, vague terms such as "cruel" and "degrading" inevitably would be stretched to coddle terrorists unduly. Congress should instead set clear standards, consulting intelligence experts and medical professionals to flesh out which techniques should always be prohibited (for example, those likely to cause death or permanent disability), and which are permissible — and most likely to yield reliable lifesaving information.
Accountability means not leaving serious judgments to junior personnel. Harsh interrogation methods, such as covert operations under current federal law, should require approval by a high-ranking administration official.
Obviously, distinctions must be made between terrorist leaders and low-level operatives. Even so, those arguing that it is better to sacrifice the lives of U.S. troops — or even an American city — rather than cause a terrorist temporary discomfort are making a terrible mistake. They urge a self-destructive policy and a misguided morality.