The Senate Intelligence Committee picked a hell of a day to hold a hearing on national security. With every news source in the country vying for the most up-to-date primary information and the chattering classes glued to the exit polls, nobody really noticed when CIA director Michael Hayden admitted to Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. has, in fact, waterboarded three terrorism suspects: 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The waterboarding took place from late 2001 through early 2003, he said, and has since stopped.
Hayden's testimony confirmed what we already knew, though his statement marked the first time that a senior intelligence official has publicly acknowledged using the technique. And he didn't just acknowledge it; he quantified its importance. According to Hayden, the confessions of two of the suspects—Mohammed and Zubaydah—made up a full one-fourth of our human intelligence on Al Qaeda for the next five years.
I'm skeptical that this was really a full disclosure—it seems unbelievable that the CIA would base such a high proportion of its intelligence on only two interrogations. Though it's possible that the results of those interrogations sent the CIA in useful directions, the sheer speed with which the terrain shifts would seem to suggest a need to cultivate sources whose information is more current. Hayden himself emphasized during the hearing that since the detainees were waterboarded, "realities have changed."
Senate Democrats have now demanded that the Justice Department launch a criminal investigation into the CIA's use of torture, which would come on the heels of CIA and Congressional investigations that are already underway. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin even wrote a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey threatening to block his nominee for a deputy if the AG does not give some specific answers, and fast. (Thus far he has declined to answer any of Senator Durbin's written inquiries.) And the plot continues to thicken: yesterday Bush spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters that the White House had reviewed and authorized Hayden's testimony before he gave it, and this morning Mukasey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department "cannot possibly" investigate, prompting Senators Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse to send him yet another letter.
In some ways, though, the political wrangling obscures the bigger picture here: that our strategies for fighting terrorism, in addition to being morally questionable, do not seem to keep pace with the problem. The proliferation of terrorist spinoff cells should show us that capturing one or two leaders of a network does not mean the rest will topple like dominoes. If we want to live up to our supposed commitment to fight terrorism, we're going to have to do better than this.