Where do we go after the death of Osama bin Laden? Some commentators have optimistically pronounced the beginning of the end of the conflict with al-Qaeda. Others warn that the movement’s decentralized character may render the elimination of its leader less of a blow than it would be for a more traditional organization.
How matters proceed from here will turn on a range of critical decisions in the White House, including how and when to start drawing down troops in Afghanistan, whether and how to negotiate with the Taliban, and how to manage the explosive politics of our relations with Pakistan. But the future course of the conflict will turn just as critically on whether President Obama takes advantage of his newfound support to reinforce the principle he set out at the beginning of his administration—namely, that the struggle against terrorism can and must be fought without sacrificing the fundamental values of the rule of law.
Already, his critics are pointing to bin Laden’s death as proof that torture works, and advocating that he resurrect the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And Congress is considering several bills that would make it impossible to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and would also expand the power to detain terror suspects without charge while reducing procedural safeguards designed to limit wrongful imprisonment. Obama showed strong leadership in ordering the operation to capture or kill bin Laden. Now he must demonstrate equal conviction in defining how we proceed in the next stage of winding down the war on terror.
Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and Jose Rodriguez, all of whom were directly involved in authorizing and implementing the CIA’s torture tactics, have rushed to claim credit for bin Laden’s death. They maintain that some of the links in the four-year “mosaic” of evidence that ultimately led to his discovery reportedly came from CIA detainees after they were subjected to waterboarding or other coercive tactics. Proof of causation is sorely lacking, however; the reported record actually suggests that both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, who were subjected to such tactics, misled interrogators about the identity of bin Laden’s courier, and that neither provided any information about couriers in response to the brutal treatment inflicted upon them. (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded this, although the next day he reverted, as The New York Times put it, to “talking points about the virtues of prisoner abuse.”)
Most importantly, of course, torture is absolutely forbidden as a legal matter because it is absolutely wrong as a moral matter, not because it never causes a tortured person to provide useful information. An impressive list of former national security officials, including retired Army and Marine generals, has called on President Obama to reaffirm that torture is “illegal, immoral and un-American.”1 In fact, he should …