New legislation to be introduced in Congress this week may provide greater protections for terrorist detainees than those extended to American servicemen who defend our country and fight to preserve our rights and freedom. Bowing to a recent Supreme Court decision that outlawed Bush-created military commissions to try suspected al-Qaeda members, the Bush administration has now agreed to reject those commissions and follow standards of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Enemy combatants, including the alleged mastermind of 9/11, will enjoy the same rights under the law as legitimate prisoners of war.
An amendment by Sen. John McCain proposes a further expansion of rights for terrorist detainees that includes the inadmissibility of coerced testimony and the release of classified material. These misguided policies completely undermine prosecution of terrorist operatives. These policies could present a serious hindrance to fighting the global jihad, endanger the safety of American troops and make it more difficult to obtain convictions for some detainees.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration issued a military order to deny prisoner-of-war status and protections to “unlawful enemy combatants.” The government’s policy was based on Geneva Convention standards that reserve prisoner-of-war status for uniformed representatives of signatory nations who openly bear arms, follow established rules of engagement and protect civilians. Clearly, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups have not signed Geneva Convention treaties and are not military combatants who fight in a standing state army. Furthermore, members of these groups conceal their weapons, hide among civilian populations and routinely slaughter non-combatants.
Before the Supreme Court struck down military tribunals in a case involving Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former aide to Osama bin Laden, those military commissions were part of a system of existing legal protections and humane conditions afforded terrorist suspects. Those protections called for trials presided over by commissions comprised of military officers and a presiding military judge for death-penalty cases. In addition, since 2001, anti-torture standards for in-custody terrorists have prohibited “severe physical or mental pain or suffering,” clear, easily understood language. These standards have been in force in facilities such as U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) for more than five years. Further, prisoners receive regular and nutritious meals, Korans and prayer rugs, opportunities to exercise, and access to legal counsel and medical attention.
The McCain Amendment, supported by an overwhelming majority of Senate Democrats and a few Republicans, would increase detainee protections to unacceptable and unworkable levels. Under the proposed legislation, detainees would be allowed access to classified information used to support the government’s case against them. If this classified information were not released, charges against them would be dismissed.
In addition, the standard for torture would be broadened to include more encompassing language, which would newly define torture as “cruel, inhumane, or degrading” treatment. Any admissions made by suspected terrorists under conditions deemed to violate this much broader standard would be deemed inadmissible. Such language could open the door to label as torture strip searches for contraband, physical discomfort from a malfunctioning air conditioner, assignment of prisoners to bathroom cleaning duty or even interrogation of Muslim men by female officers. This is not a far-fetched scenario. A prominent Muslim advocacy organization recently labeled as torture forced feeding of GITMO hunger strikers, even though it was undertaken to save their lives.
Jihadists are well schooled in deception and don’t necessarily respond, as expected, to direct questioning. Al-Qaeda manuals instruct terrorist detainees to insist that they have been tortured and to call attention to “mistreatment” through hunger strikes. The Koran and Hadith, collections of the the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, require that Muslims engage in deception and lying to confuse the infidel or non-Muslim. This practice encompasses the disguising of one’s intentions (Taquiya), the purposeful providing of limited information (Kitman) and the attack on another as a diversionary tactic (Tu-Quoque). At his trial in March of 2006, the “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, stated “You’re allowed to lie for jihad. You’re allowed any technique to defeat your enemy.”
Yet, the MCain bill would restrict our ability to interrogate this crafty enemy. Under the proposed McCain standard of treatment, 19 traditional interrogation approaches would be excluded. They include fairly benign procedures such as “good cop, bad cop” role-playing; solitary confinement of up to 30 days; dietary manipulations, such as replacing hot meals with packaged meals; and environmental manipulations, such as introducing bad odors, disrupting sleep or playing loud music. This at the same time that our own soldiers and kidnapped civilians, in the custody of terrorist operatives, have been tortured, denied medical treatment, deprived of food altogether, beheaded and disemboweled. Our adoption of this new standard will likely do nothing to change the behavior of our enemies.
But a change in standards does send a message to our terrorist persecutors that we afford greater protections to an al-Qaeda mastermind, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, than our own men in uniform. We are being attacked on unconventional battlefields from our commercial jet cabins to our university campuses by an enemy with no compunctions about employing any murderous methodology, from human shields to weaponizing baby bottles, to launching missiles from schools in session to numerous other atrocities. We, in return, create legislation that broadcasts to the terrorists that the worst fate they will suffer upon capture is a comfortable, well-fed, well-tended incarceration where they can praise Allah on a government-issued prayer rug!
This proposed policy of bending over backwards to ensure the humane treatment of Muslim terrorists stands in direct contrast to our treatment of American soldiers charged with a battlefield action. Seven Marines and a Navy Corpsman were thrown in the brig at Camp Pendleton in June, locked in solitary confinement cells with leg and wrist shackles, able to see their families only through one-inch thick glass. The Pendleton Eight, as they are called, waited three months to be charged with a crime. Although their guilt or innocence has yet to be determined, they have been much maligned by the media. These are our servicemen who are defending our country. They may be innocent or perhaps guilty only of a misjudgment on a civilian-littered battlefield! If we’re upgrading the definition of humane treatment as it applies to war detainees, why don’t our own U.S. solders also deserve to be beneficiaries?
An even more critical question is: does this legislative push by human rights activists and legislators to protect terrorist operatives, in fact, jeopardize ongoing investigations and ultimately the safety of all Americans? Won’t releasing sensitive information and rejecting coercive interrogations harm us?
It would appear ill advised to curtail the very techniques that may have been used to extract important information about future attacks from Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Under the lax standards currently being urged, we could be required to divulge confidential information, such as the documents that contained sensitive aviation data requested by Moussaoui’s counsel.
The reality is that we are fighting an unconventional war in which timely intelligence is critical to thwart terrorist operations. When high-level al-Qaeda operatives are in our custody, we need to maximize the opportunity to extract information under less restrictive standards, such as the “cruel and unusual punishment” referred to in our Constitution. Reasonable questioning methodologies with executive authority are critical to intercept terrorist plots. If, instead, we go overboard to uphold our reputation and status as a moral and just nation and try to affirm our superiority to the terrorists, as proposed by Senator McCain, we will do so at the cost of innocent American lives. In this way, these new standards will gravely undermine American security.
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