“I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m gonna make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” – Barack Obama, 16 November 2008
With Bin Laden’s death a few days back, a minor argument has erupted over the impact of torture (and other non-due-process measures) on the ability of the intelligence community to find and kill the #1 most wanted. It appears that some (perhaps only a small bit) of the intelligence used in identifying the courier that proved Bin Laden’s undoing came from “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “waterboarding”). Furthermore, and the details on this one are a little hazy, we finally located the courier when he made a phone call to somebody inside the United States that was under surveillance. Now, I haven’t heard anything about warrants for this surveillance – but, of course, we don’t need a warrant to snoop such a call under the Patriot Act (another policy “opposed” by Obama).
All of this has lead to charges of hypocrisy. The claim is that if the president opposes these policies then (i) he should not use intelligence gathered by such methods and (ii) he certainly shouldn’t continue policies he opposes [e.g., the Patriot Act]. It may surprise the reader, but I’m going to come to Obama’s defense on this (though I will offer said defense with a principled stand on a completely different issue).
First, though the details are sketchy, it appears the waterboarding happened before Obama took office. If so, the debate is not whether we should be waterboarding, but whether we should use information obtained from previous waterboardings – even if we now eschew the practice. To this we would have to say, unequivocally, “yes” we should use the intelligence. Using such intelligence, when it’s there, does not imply an endorsement of the policy.
This is exactly the same argument (with political roles reversed a bit) that comes up in regards to welfare programs. Accepting the help offered by those programs in a time of need does not, in any way, constitute an endorsement of said programs. One can use such programs while opposing their existence – and certainly one can oppose such programs years after having broken free.
We find, quite often, that former recipients view the programs as addictive, unproductive, and even corrupting. And yet, if they speak out about the issue they are shamed and cowed by progressive liberals as hypocrites – “oh, it was OK when you were using the program, but now you oppose it? you hypocrite.” We reject this argument out-of-hand, just as we reject the notion that using intelligence gathered years ago from harsh interrogation constitutes an endorsement of those procedures.
(Note, I’m not here arguing for or against those interrogation techniques; only that Obama’s opposition is not surrendered due to the outcome of the Bin Laden hunt.)
Now, the second issue is a bit trickier. Obama and other liberals opposed the Patriot Act on privacy grounds (a reasonable argument) – but continued to use it when necessary. As recent as February 28 of this year Congress passed a 90 day extension. Obama could have vetoed this extension. Even if he didn’t veto it, he could have instructed the CIA/FBI/NSA not to act on the allowances of the Patriot Act (he is the head of the Executive branch, after all).
Here the critics may have some fodder – which may be why the details are not available as to whether this surveillance was “warranted” or not. I wouldn’t so much label this hypocrisy though, just reneging. Honestly, this appears to be just another simple case of political bluster over substance – much like the Guantanamo Bay situation. Obama wanted to close Gitmo and wanted to end the Patriot Act – especially when it was politically convenient to make those arguments. BUT, the realities of leadership casts all things in a different light, and he may have realized that he was much better able to do the job of protecting the country with those policies in place. (Again, I say this irrespective of my position on the issues of Guantanamo or the Patriot Act.)