Torture: Did releasing the memos hurt our national security?

Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, says ‘yes’. I think his argument is on very weak ground. Here’s Hayden on Fox this past Sunday:

[CHRIS] WALLACE: And you [told the White House] this would be a grave threat to national security to…

HAYDEN: I probably didn’t use those words, but I marshaled the arguments as to why I thought it would make America less safe.

WALLACE: Now, we should point out that you were CIA director starting in 2006, which means that you came in after these memos, and you came in after almost all of these interrogations took place.

But I do want to ask you — explain the practical effect that you believe of how the release of these memos will help Al Qaeda train its recruits, train its operatives, to stand up to future interrogations.

HAYDEN: Sure. At the tactical level, what we have described for our enemies in the midst of a war are the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an Al Qaeda terrorist. That’s very valuable information.

Now, it doesn’t mean we would always go to those outer limits, but it describes the box within which Americans will not go beyond.

To me, that’s very useful for our enemies, even if, as a policy matter, this president at this time had decided not to use one, any, or all of those techniques. It still reveals those outer limits, and that’s very important.

The rough shape of the outer limits is publicly known — even George Bush insisted the United States will never approve of torture. What we’re arguing about now is whether several borderline interrogation methods constitute torture. If the CIA were still using those borderline methods, it might be useful for Al Qaeda to know their specifics.

In theory, Al Qaeda can train its operatives more efficiently if they don’t have spend time learning to resist certain methods. But will vicious, America-hating terrorists really trust the US not to use harsh interrogation methods, no matter how many memos are released and repudiated? Besides, Al Qaeda operatives never know who will capture them. If it’s the Saudis, or the Egyptians, or any number of Middle Eastern governments, they can fully expect to be tortured and will have to train accordingly.

If there’s a case to be made against releasing the memos, I think David Ignatius does it better:

Obama seems to think he can have it both ways — authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are “yet to come.” Life doesn’t work that way — even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America’s image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren’t costly to CIA morale and effectiveness.

That may explain why Obama’s own CIA director, not to mention his predecessors, all opposed releasing the memos.

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