When I was asked to appear on The Daily Show, the news-with-views edgy-comedy TV program, I was reluctant. The issue: whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" used to pry information about terrorist plots from al-Qaeda leaders should be regarded as torture, and those who used such techniques prosecuted. How would Jon Stewart, the acerbic and unabashedly liberal host, make this issue funny? How would I make it serious?
In the end, I agreed. Why? Because millions of Americans don't read newspapers, web-zines, and wonky blogs. If my mission is to tell the public what I believe to be the truth about life-and-death issues, I have to be willing to go where the public is.
As always on TV, I'd have to make my case in sound bites — though, in this instance, many would be swallowed by Jon's punch lines, and by the studio audience's laughter, cheers, and hoots. I figured I'd better try to prepare myself by running an interview in my head. What follows is the interview I fantasized.
JON STEWART: So, Cliff, let's get to the point: How can you support torture!?!?!
CLIFF MAY: Actually, Jon, I don't. But more important: The CIA officials who have performed harsh interrogations do not support torture. The lawyers who wrote the memos telling the CIA what was permitted and what was not permitted don't support torture. Nor do the congressmen, including Democrats, who not only didn't ban these practices — they funded them.
JS: You don't think the torture memos told these guys to go ahead and knock yourself out — or rather, knock out your prisoners?
CM: No one who reads the memos can think that. The media keep calling these "torture memos." They're really "anti-torture memos." They tell the CIA where they must draw the line. They instruct them not to cross from coercive interrogations — sometimes called "stress and duress" — to torture, a practice which is made illegal under law. You can disagree about where the attorneys drew the line — but drawing it was indisputably what they were doing in these memos.
JS: C'mon, Cliff. You're trying to tell me waterboarding is not torture?
CM: It can be — it certainly was when the Japanese did it. If you want to, you can kill someone in minutes by waterboarding. But that's not the way it was done by American intelligence officials. They had to have physicians on hand empowered to stop it at any time. They had to tell their subjects they were not going to be killed — because if they didn't, that would cause them too much suffering. They could only pour water on them for up to 40 seconds at a time — unpleasant, sure, but not longer than they could hold their breath.
And let's remember: Only three individuals were waterboarded. Three. All of them al-Qaeda leaders concealing information about active terrorist plots. And by the way, no one has been waterboarded since 2003.
JS: But answer my question: Is waterboarding torture? Yes or no?
CM: Defining torture is not easy. A simple legal definition is that it "shocks the conscience." Cutting off Daniel Pearl's head on videotape — that shocks my conscience. Sending a child out as a suicide bomber — that shocks my conscience. People jumping off the World Trade Towers because they'd rather die that way than by burning — that shocks my conscience. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 atrocities, gagging for a few minutes and, as a result, providing information that saves lives, then going back to his cell for dinner and a movie — no, my conscience is not shocked by that.
JS: There's no proof any of this was effective. In fact, a lot of people say such techniques don't produce good information.
CM: Obama's top intelligence official, Adm. Dennis Blair, says these techniques produced "high-value information" that gave the U.S. government "a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country."
Former CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden, and former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently wrote: "As late as 2006, fully half of the government's knowledge about the structure and activities of Al Qaeda came from those [coercive] interrogations."
Former CIA director George Tenet has said, "I know that this program has saved lives. I know we've disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than [what] the FBI, the [CIA], and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us."
Former national intelligence director Mike McConnell has said, "We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened."
Many other top intelligence officials say the same: Coercive interrogations are the only way we have to get life-saving information out of trained, hardened al-Qaeda terrorists.
I think the evidence is clear. But if others do not, let's release the "effectiveness memos" as former Vice President Cheney has requested and let's release other data on this question. Perhaps at this point we need a national debate on security and morality.
JS: How do we know softer methods wouldn't have worked?
CM: Look, we know this: Khalid Sheikh Mohamed was captured. He said: "I want a lawyer." He didn't get one — I know some people think he deserved one, but he's not a criminal defendant or an honorable prisoner of war. The Geneva Convention does not cover him — even Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder has said that.
Later, they asked KSM over and over: "Will there be another attack?" He would just smile and say: "Soon you will see."
Now maybe you think asking him again and adding pretty please with a cherry on top would have produced results in time. The intelligence officials didn't think that. They went to the Justice Department and said: "What can we do? How far can we go to save lives?" And they got the information they needed — and we haven't had another attack on American soil since.
And after being waterboarded and suffering other coercive methods in 2002, Abu Zubaydah explained that he and his "brothers" were permitted to give up information — only once interrogators pushed them to the limit of their endurance. At that point, he provided information that helped the CIA capture terrorist Ramzi Binalshibh.
The two captives then gave up details that led to the capture of KSM who, as I said, was initially defiant but who finally revealed information leading to the capture of several other terrorist and at least one terrorist cell.
JS: You're not saying we're "in danger" if we stop this kind of interrogation?
CM: I am. The current administration appears to have ruled out any coercive techniques: No sleep deprivation — not even for a night. No loud music — it drives the terrorists crazy! So it's torture! Better to let the attack proceed. The victims and their families surely will understand.
We basically have three weapons against terrorists: capture them, interrogate them, kill them. But there's no point in capturing if you can't effectively interrogate, so that leaves just killing. How do you justify that? How do you say, "Yes, you can hit that terrorist with a Predator missile but you can't make him listen to Slim Shady"?
JS: And what do you propose?
CM: I would hope that President Obama would change his mind. I would hope he would say to his advisers: "Give me a list of all the techniques that are effective. I'll take a red pen and cross out the ones we will never use no matter what. But I'll circle the ones that may be used if I'm asked — and if I give specific authorization. As for other techniques that are clearly not torture but may inflict discomfort, there will be detailed guidelines and I want the director of the CIA to sign off every time they are used."
JS: Fair enough. But those who have already broken the law, shouldn't they be prosecuted?
CM: What we're talking about is astonishing: Government lawyers in the current administration prosecuting government lawyers from the previous administration because they disagree with their legal opinions. Never before in American history has policy been so politicized. It's as though Eisenhower prosecuted Truman for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The one indisputable achievement of the Bush administration was keeping Americans safe from terrorism for seven years. It's one thing to minimize that; it's quite another to try to spin it as a war crime.
JS: But surely no one is above the law?
CM: If there was any real basis for prosecutions, those cases should have been brought. They could have been brought anytime since 2003 — when, as I said, waterboarding stopped being used. Instead, leaders of Congress from both parties were briefed on these interrogation methods and they not only approved of them — they funded them. And there were occasions when bills were brought before Congress to specifically outlaw waterboarding. Those bills did not pass.
If members of Congress want to make a statement now, let them pass a law against waterboarding. Let them do that this week. But no witch hunts or show trials. That's not good for the country.
JS: Gosh, Cliff. You've made some very strong points. I need to think about this. And can I make a donation to your organization?
Okay, that was my fantasy interview. It didn't actually go quite this well. How did it come out? You can watch the real debate online and judge for yourself.