Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Looking Forward, Not Backward, on Interrogation Investigations

Posted on May 17, 2009

Even though President Obama has said we should look forward, some in Congress insist on looking backward to a broader investigation of interrogation tactics that were used against 9/11 terrorists to find out whether even more airplanes were on their way to kill even more Americans. These interrogation tactics are now well known. They had been approved by the National Security Council, approved by the Department of Justice, and were known to senior Democratic and Republican Members of Congress who, CIA records now show, were briefed some 40 times. The CIA has not used the tactics in question for several years. They are not being used today. Congress has since enacted laws that make clear that interrogation tactics used by the military are limited to those contained in the Army Field Manual. The president extended those same limitations to intelligence agencies this year by executive order. The president is following his own advice to look forward by asking the National Security Council to review what tactics would be appropriate when terrorists are captured who might have information about imminent attacks on Americans. The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting its own review of tactics and is considering expanding the briefing process for interrogation tactics. Despite these investigations, some still say, let's have "a full-blown criminal" investigation of the lawyers who were only doing their job by providing the administration with their legal opinions on a very controversial, sensitive issue. That raises these questions: Where do we draw the line? Where is the logical place to stop? On May 7th, I asked these questions of Attorney General Eric Holder at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. He found it difficult to give me specific answers. To begin with, the attorney general did not answer my question about what directions he had received from the White House concerning interrogations. I asked if, since we are going to investigate lawyers for giving their opinions, we shouldn’t also investigate intelligence agents who created the interrogation techniques and asked for the opinions, or officials who approved the techniques, or Members of Congress who knew about or approved or even encouraged the interrogation tactics. His response was simply, “Hypothetically.” What’s more, the attorney general could not remember whether he knew or approved of renditions that occurred during the Clinton administration when he was deputy attorney general—renditions that took captured terrorists to other countries, such as Egypt perhaps—for custody, and possibly for interrogation. He did not say what precautions he took to make sure these renditions followed the law. The attorney general's vague answers and poor memory suggest what a difficult path it will be if the government continues to publicize and expand its investigation of interrogation tactics. Public officials, of course, should follow the law, but it is not necessary to have a circus to determine whether the law was followed. If there is to be a broader investigation than currently is underway, it must be fair and evenhanded and lead wherever it may lead—perhaps to intelligence officers, perhaps to administration officials, perhaps to Members of Congress. The attorney general himself needs to be willing to say what he knew and when he knew it and what he did about renditions during the Clinton administration when he was deputy attorney general. Obsessively looking in the rear view mirror could consume our nation's every waking moment. There is plenty about America's history that, in retrospect, we wish had not happened: Supreme Court decisions barring blacks from public facilities, Congress filibustering anti-lynching laws, excluding Jews from major institutions, denying women the right to vote, incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II, and so on. We have dealt with these failures best by acknowledging and correcting them, not wallowing in them—by recognizing that the United States has always been a work in progress toward great goals, rarely achieving them, often falling back—but always trying. In fact, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington has written that most of our political debates are about dealing with the disappointment of not meeting great goals we have set for ourselves. Then there is the practical question of who will want to serve in public life in Washington, D.C., if the first thing a newly elected administration does is to try to discredit, disbar, or indict all those with whom it disagrees in the last administration? Some of that damage already has been done. For all these reasons, I would hope the president will follow his first instinct and insist that we go forward as a country—focus on the economy, on the banks and the auto companies, on health care and energy, on a Supreme Court Justice, and two wars in which our men and women are serving.