Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ticking Time Bomb

In light of recent Senate debate on the issue of prisoner detention and interrogation, a group of retired Generals sent the following letter to Senator Hillary Clinton. It provides a thoughtful perspective and some compelling arguments on the “ticking time bomb scenario” that’s always levied by those who have no aversion to allowing water-boarding and similar techniques to be at the lawful disposal of American interrogators.

April 19, 2007

Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Clinton:

Thank you for meeting with us and the other retired general and flag officers last Friday. We appreciated the opportunity to have an exchange of views about U.S. policies on detention and interrogation of prisoners and the implications of those policies for the safety of our troops and the values they fight to defend.

We believe it is important for the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, to ensure that all U.S. personnel adhere to a uniform standard for interrogating and detaining enemy prisoners that is effective, lawful and humane. These are issues that the next President of the United States must face and which every candidate for that office will undoubtedly be asked to address throughout the campaign.

We said we would follow up with you to share some additional thoughts from the group about the issues we discussed. In particular, we promised to explore further a topic that has been ubiquitous in the public discourse around these issues: the question of whether it is ever acceptable or wise for a President and Commander-in-Chief to leave open the possibility that he or she would authorize torture or other unlawful treatment in cases of dire emergency. As you know, this question – commonly referred to as the ticking time bomb scenario – is frequently put to presidential candidates on the campaign trail in an attempt to prompt them into admitting that they would violate fundamental American values in order to save American lives.

We recognize this question as the trap it is intended to be. As Commander-in-Chief, it would be your duty to set a clear policy for everyone under your command, not to make tactical decisions like the one presented by this hypothetical. We also know from experience that a situation like the ticking time bomb is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, as it would require a simultaneous triumph and catastrophic failure of intelligence. In order for the scenario to become reality, we would have to know virtually everything about an impending attack – that it was imminent, that it would be catastrophic, that the person we had in custody knew the one vital piece of information we needed to stop it, that he would divulge that information under torture – everything except that one vital piece of information.

People are understandably fearful about another attack like the one we sustained on 9/11 and, fed by what they see on television and in the movies, they are naturally drawn to the collective fantasy that torture in a ticking time bomb situation can spare us from suffering such an attack. Because of that, we understand the need for candidates to address the ticking time bomb question. But we believe you should use the opportunity of answering this question to lead the American people away from the grip of fear that prompts the question in the first place. In that spirit, we offer the following thoughts on how to defuse the ticking time bomb.

While the standard ticking time bomb scenario as presented on television and in hypothetical questions to candidates is a fiction, there is another sense in which the ticking time bomb scenario is painfully real. Our soldiers in Iraq confront ticking time bomb situations every single day, in the form of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). There is no question in our minds that the proper way to deal with people who might have information about these threats is to abide by the law and by our
training. We know what works in these situations. And it is not torture.

We also know that the risks of hitting the panic button in a ticking time bomb situation are numerous and grave. First, torture is unlikely to produce accurate or actionable intelligence; to the contrary, since torture of a determined enemy is more likely to produce lies than the truth, applying torture in a true ticking time bomb situation is the surest way to guarantee that the bomb will go off. Torture does not work, and nothing about the urgency of a ticking time bomb situation – nor any amount of wishful thinking – will change that fact.

The case of captured terrorism suspect Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi underscores the gravity of this risk. After initially cooperating with FBI interrogators, al Libbi was transferred to CIA custody and then to Egypt, where he was reportedly subjected to waterboarding and other torture. Under torture, al Libbi told interrogators that Iraq had trained al Qaeda to use biochemical weapons. It came out later that al Libbi had fabricated the story in order to stop the torture, and all the information he provided was deemed unreliable and discredited. But by that time, we had already used his information as part of the case for going to war with Iraq.

Second, even if one attempts to limit the use of torture only to rare situations of dire emergency – real ticking time bomb situations – it always spreads. Any degree of “flexibility” about torture articulated by the Commander-in-Chief will drop down the chain of command like a stone, and the rare exception will fast become the rule. Every American soldier, sailor, airman and Marine takes an oath in which they swear to obey the lawful orders of the President as Commander-in-Chief. If you become President of the United States, these men and women will look to you not only for their orders but for the guidance and standards that inform those orders. Our men and women in uniform need clear and consistent standards, and the military provides those to them.

But if the Commander-in-Chief muddies that message by saying that he or she would be willing to authorize torture in some circumstances, we cannot expect our troops on the battlefield, who face death every day, to eschew it. As military professionals, we can say with certainty that complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

Third, permitting torture in any circumstance does grave damage to America’s moral authority and, by fueling jihadist recruitment, undermines our security. Our country cannot hope to lead the world if it forsakes the most fundamental rules and standards it insists other countries uphold. This long war in which we are now engaged is in many respects a war of ideas, and it will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of those in the region who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave and imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This is a recipe for defeat.

And finally, as officers who were entrusted with the safety and moral integrity of the young men and women under our command, we believe strongly that any Commander-in-Chief who would authorize torture under any circumstances must understand the impact of that decision on those who would be ordered to carry it out. When we take young men and women from their parents and train them to be soldiers, we do so with the implied promise that they will be returned to their families better people for having served their country. That is a solemn obligation, and we breach it when we equivocate about the use of torture and other cruelty. We urge that you keep this obligation foremost in your mind when you are asked whether there are circumstances – even the most dire – under which you would authorize the use of torture.

Our country must return to the values our forefathers had the wisdom to set out in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Terrorism is a serious problem that we must confront using all our strength, persistence and ingenuity. But our values – as set out in these founding documents – are an asset in that fight as well, and we forfeit that asset at our peril. We need strong positive leadership that will replace fear with enthusiastic optimism that our Nation’s future is bright and secure. Our citizens and the world are searching for that leadership.

We look forward to further discussions with you about these issues of such importance to our Nation.


General Charles C. Krulak, USMC (Ret.)
General Joseph P. Hoar, USMC (Ret.)
General Paul J. Kern, USA (Ret.)
General Merrill A. McPeak, USAF (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard Jr., USA (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, USN (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Albert H. Konetzni Jr., USN (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Charles P. Otstott, USA (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Harry E. Soyster, USA (Ret.)
Major General Paul D. Eaton, USA (Ret.)
Rear Admiral Donald J. Guter, USN (Ret.)
Major General Fred E. Haynes, USMC (Ret.)
Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, USN (Ret.)
Major General Melvyn S. Montano, ANG (Ret.)
Brigadier General David M. Brahms, USMC (Ret.)
Brigadier General James P. Cullen, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Murray G. Sagsveen, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, USA (Ret.)

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