The Former President’s memoirs highlight the ethical dilemmas of terror faced by democratic governments
The spellbinding thing about Dubya is that he tells it like it is, even when we’d rather he didn’t. In his Times interview, Mr Bush was blithely defiant, not least on one of the era’s grim specialities, the American waterboarding of terror suspects.
He cannot admit that “enhanced interrogation techniques” are the same as torture, though there is enough evidence that, in psychological terms, they are.
Anyone missing their regular dose of Bush-loathing will find much to relish. It’s all there in the reply to the question of whether he authorised the use of the waterboarding technique against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks: “Damn right,” says Dubya, with his homely blend of certainty and imperviousness.
And yet many more questions are raised by these recollections than can easily be dismissed by blaming him for just being George W Bush.
This isn’t an argument he and the neo-cons or scriptwriters at Spooks started. It has been with us throughout all major terror conflicts of the post-war era. One of the first stories I ever covered in this area was the Landau Commission report on the Israeli counter-intelligence service Shabak and its interrogation methods in the late Eighties.
It revealed that Shabak regularly used violent methods of interrogation and that agents were told lie in court about how evidence was gathered. Ultimately, the commission allowed for “moderate physical pressure” where failure to extract information might enable an attack to proceed. The conclusion was much criticised outside the country but was more understandable for those living with the daily threats of bombs in Tel Aviv cafés.
Until 9/11, few people seriously questioned what physical pressure the West might justifiably apply to avert threat. A majority of us feel waterboarding, with its intolerable simulation of drowning, damn wrong. But how many people truly feel terror suspects should be treated with kid gloves if they are withholding information that could help prevent an atrocity?
We will the ends of security without wanting to dwell on the means. It’s a point made in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, when the Blair character confronts the holier-than-thou foreign secretary pursuing him for alleged war crimes. There are, he says, two planes at an airport. The queue for one of them screens passengers using information gathered about terror suspects from countries where human rights are frequently disregarded.
The other uses material only from ethically approved sources. Which queue would you want your son or daughter to join for a gap-year flight across the Atlantic?
These are genuinely difficult moral and practical choices and they are evaded by the easy claim that torture — or its near cousin “enhanced interrogation techniques” — are worthless, because people “say anything” under pressure.
Resourceful intelligence services are rarely stupid enough to want to extract false information for sake of it. They use extreme methods not to force people to say anything that is required but to confirm existing evidence, provide the final piece in the jigsaw or cross-check a key fact. So Mr Bush is doubtless parroting his own security hawks by claiming to have stopped attacks on the UK solely by these methods.
At the same time, those questioning a 9/11 mastermind at a time of urgent threat are unlikely to feel that their responsibility stops with calling in the suspect’s lawyer and seeing what he deigns to divulge. Do we really think it should?
Into these treacherous waters has strayed Sir John Sawers. The new head of MI6 recently declared that the secret services in the UK do not use or condone mistreatment of suspects. That sounds nice. He was scantily frank, though, about the context of these remarks and what they mean in practice.
For too long, both MI5 and MI6 have declared that there was no case to answer, when the facts suggest otherwise. In the most high-profile alleged case of collusion with maltreatment, Binyam Mohamed’s own story remains deeply suspect. He claimed to have been in an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan while purportedly trying to cure a drug habit, and travelled on a false passport in jihadist areas. If the Americans thought Mr Mohamed was a danger, it’s not hard to see why.
These are, alas, precisely the cases where the role of British secret services will be most sensitive and the line of compromise too easily crossed under pressure: the subject of an upcoming inquiry.
The oddest argument I have heard rehearsed in advance from sources is that our intelligence services were unaware of how common rough US interrogation methods were after 9/11: so that they, too, were being deceived about what their partner service was doing.
Well, I support America as more of a force for good in the world than the opposite. Even from that stance, it’s hard to credit that the combination of Messrs Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush would proceed with the caution of angels after 9/11. The mood, as one senior intelligence officer admits, “verged on psychosis”.
One of the dreadful legacies of the Bush era excuses has been the widespread association of the US with a new Schrecklichkeit — the First World War German creed of harsh measures, hastily dispensed to crush an enemy and establish superiority. It was illusory and short-lived then, as it proved now.
“I would have preferred that we get the information another way,” Mr Bush says of the Khalid Mohammed interrogation, Alas, the secrecy that surrounded these practices indicates that he knew that he could not win an open argument.
The real charge here is that Mr Bush forgot that upholding democracy is as much part of the job description as beating its enemies. He’s a human dartboard, the ex-President, and much of the time he deserves it. Nonetheless, he conveys an inconvenient truth. Free societies make moral compromises in the fight against enemies that we would rather not acknowledge. If these memoirs reveal the sliver of hypocrisy inside most of us, they’re none the worse for that.