Killing vs. Capturing/Interrogating Terrorists

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“My position has always been clear: If you’ve got a terrorist, take him out. Anybody who was involved in 9/11, take ‘em out.”
-Barack Obama

More regarding the dueling VPs this weekend:

Biden struck first, declaring that Cheney’s attacks on Obama’s commitment to fighting terrorism ignored the facts.

“We’ve eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates,” said Biden. “They are in fact not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run. I don’t know where Dick Cheney has been. Look, it’s one thing, again, to criticize. It’s another thing to sort of rewrite history. What is he talking about?”

What is Joe Biden talking about, “rewrite history”? Much of al Qaeda’s original leadership and many of its operatives were killed and captured in the years since 9/11 and before the Age of Obama. Furthermore, Obama has inherited many of the tools developed during the Bush years that has kept America safe. Even many of his lefty allies understand that much of the war on terror success OBiden can boast of in his first year in office is due to the perpetuation of Bush-era policies that they so despised and reviled.

But where Obama departs from Bush is where he endangers America most…

Besides the determination to close Guantanamo, the most potentially disastrous decision of the Obama Administration has been the suspension of the CIA interrogation program that saved American lives; a program that prevented other 9/11-scale attacks on American soil.

Since we no longer seem interested in the business of detaining and interrogating al Qaeda operatives what appears to be the Obama solution: Just kill ’em.

Toward the end of President Obama’s first year in office:

The New America Foundation, a policy group in Washington, studied press reports and estimated that since 2006 at least 500 militants and 250 civilians had been killed in the drone strikes. A separate count, by The Long War Journal, found 885 militants’ deaths and 94 civilians’.

So let’s get this straight: It’s ok to kill terrorists along with innocent civilians under Obama; but not ok to capture and waterboard terrorists under Bush?

The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?

In my previous post, I mentioned an article by Marc Thiessen, former Bush speech writer and author of the must-read Courting Disaster. In it, Thiessen writes:

Obama’s escalation of the “Predator War” comes at the very same time he has eliminated the CIA’s capability to capture senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogate them for information on new attacks. The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton — an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.


The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning — and that is putting the country at risk. As one high-ranking CIA official explained to me, in an interview for my book Courting Disaster, “In the wake of 9/11, [the CIA] put forward a program that had a lethal component to strike back at the people who did this. But the other component was to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again. And for that, killing people — especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders — is potentially counterproductive in that we can’t know or learn of future attacks. You can’t kill them all, and you don’t want to kill them all from an intelligence standpoint. We needed to know what they knew.”

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others. In all, about 100 terrorists were detained and questioned by the CIA. And the information they provided helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London’s financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles.

Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can’t tell you their plans to strike America.

A commenter in the previous post questioned whether or not Thiessen was being misleading, noting that

I imagine many situtations that offer drones a target of opportunity don’t also offer an opportunity for capture.

Thiessen addresses this point in his article:

To be sure, unmanned drones are critical in the struggle against al Qaeda. They allow the United States to reach terrorists hiding in remote regions where it would be difficult for special operations forces to reach them, or to act on perishable intelligence when the only choice is to kill a terrorist or lose him. Constantly hovering Predator (or Reaper) drones also have a psychological effect on the enemy, forcing al Qaeda leaders to live in fear and spend time focusing on self-preservation that would otherwise be used planning the next attack. All this is for the good.

The problem is, there have been opportunities to capture rather than kill senior leaders, and the decision was made to take the latter route. In last Sunday’s WaPo:

When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.

The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.

The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.

The Nabhan decision was one of a number of similar choices the administration has faced over the past year as President Obama has escalated U.S. attacks on the leadership of al-Qaeda and its allies around the globe. The result has been dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions.

This would appear to validate Thiessen’s criticism that by shutting down the CIA interrogation program and by closing down Guantanamo, the Obama administration is not interested in detaining and interrogating. Just law enforcement prosecutions and eliminations.

If this is the Obama approach to fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates, then we will be fighting blind. But hey! Maybe we’ll get lucky again and have another failed (rather than “foiled”) terror plot unhatch.

Let’s hope, however, that captures like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his subsequent interrogation remain the norm and not the exception to fighting committed terrorists.

-Bring back the CIA program that interrogated the likes of KSM and Zubaydah.

-Keep Guantanamo open for business.

13 Responses to “Killing vs. Capturing/Interrogating Terrorists”

  1. This bears repeating:

    The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?

    The exception to the thesis of this post is the recent capture of the Taliban #2 in Pakistan. This is the guy who quite possibly knows the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. But we won’t waterboard him to find that out?

    How many more Americans will die because Obama refuses to take the few exceptional steps necessary (only THREE terrorists were ever waterboarded) to end the threat while he willingly bombs civilians with drones thereby providing the enemy with a certain propaganda victory?

  2. 2

    John Cooper

    A superb and thoughtful analysis of a rarely-discussed question. Thank you, Wordsmith.

    …killing people — especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders — is potentially counterproductive in that we can’t know or learn of future attacks

    OTOH, it sends a strong message that “You could be the next to meet Allah.”

    Intelligence vs. FUD – it’s a hard decision.

  3. 4

    American Voter

    Too bad this article is not on the front page of the NYT along with stories on the Taliban use of women and children as human shields.

  4. 5



    Questions, questions….

    Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is now a detainee. And this is where the Obama administration’s difficulties begin. Baradar is an Afghan citizen captured in Pakistan by Pakistani and American clandestine operatives. He is evidently being interrogated jointly by Pakistan and the United States, and has information both strategic and time-sensitive about planned attacks and operations, identities and locations of leaders, funding sources and outlays, training tactics.

    Is the administration permitting the Pakistani interrogators to employ harsh methods the administration has put off limits to American intelligence professionals? They are unlikely to feel bound by our definitions of harsh interrogation; but the presence of CIA agents would expose them to culpability by the standard Attorney General Holder set in retroactively investigating agents acting with supporting legal authority during the Bush administration.

    Americans were involved in the capture; does permitting Pakistan’s ISI to have possession constitute a rendition? Is the administration confident the procedures applied to other terrorists, say, Christmas bomber Abdulmutallab, are adequate to attain the information that could save lives? Will the rules not apply because of the high value of this particular individual? Will he seek to have him extradited to the United States for trial? Will he get offered a deal in return for information? Does he fall into the acceptable 20 percent return to the fight rate for al Qaeda and Taliban that Special Assistant to the President John Brennan said we should not be concerned about last week?

    My guess is that the Obama administration will try and treat the case of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as sui generis, keeping secret as much information as possible beyond the fact of his capture. But their every decision in the Baradar case will be a precedent and a proving ground for administration policies on detention, rendition, interrogation, and ultimately dispensation of captured terrorists. Vice President Biden’s argument from last Sunday’s talk shows came very close to claiming the Obama administration is doing little different than the Bush administration had in fighting terrorism.

  5. 6




    Outsourcing the war on terror

    By Marc A. Thiessen
    The capture of the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a joint operation with Pakistan appears to be a major success in the war on terror. The Obama administration deserves credit for bringing him in alive.
    Baradar is a potential treasure trove of intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After months of criticism of President Obama’s handling of terrorist detainees, and a nearly successful attack on the homeland, he seems to have rediscovered the virtue of capturing and interrogating terrorists, instead of killing them or reading them their Miranda rights. But problems with his approach to terrorist interrogation remain.

    In his first year in office, Obama dramatically escalated the targeted killing of senior terrorist leaders, while eliminating the CIA’s program to detain and question high-value terrorists for intelligence on planned attacks. Under that program, about 100 high-value terrorists were taken into CIA custody, and their questioning helped the United States stop a series of terrorist plots. While news of Baradar’s capture leaked within days, under the CIA program captured terrorists were often held in secret for months before al-Qaeda realized they were being interrogated. This approach allowed us to capture still other terrorists who did not know they were in our sights.

    But according to The Washington Post, there have been “no reports of high-value detentions” in the past year. Baradar’s capture does not change this reality. He is not in American custody. He is being held and interrogated by Pakistan’s intelligence services. In another time, he might have been secretly transferred to CIA custody for questioning. But under Obama, we no longer have this capability.

    Echoes of al-Qaeda arrests

    Baradar’s handling appears to echo that of two senior al-Qaeda terrorists who were captured in the early days of the Obama administration. In January 2009, Pakistani commandos, acting on intelligence from the CIA, seized a Saudi al-Qaeda operative named Zabi al-Taifi. A U.S. counterterrorism official told the Associated Press that Taifi “was among the top two dozen al-Qaeda leaders” and “was deeply involved in internal and external operations plotting.” A month later, the CIA and the Pakistani commandos in Quetta captured an al-Qaeda terrorist named Abu Sufyan al-Yemeni. According to The New York Times, he was “on CIA and Pakistani lists of the top 20 al-Qaeda operatives” and “helped arrange travel and training for al-Qaeda operatives from various parts of the Muslim world to the Pakistani tribal areas.”

    Like Baradar, Taifi and Yemeni possessed valuable intelligence. But instead of sending them to the CIA or Guantanamo, they were sent to Islamabad, interrogated briefly by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and then repatriated to their home countries, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

    Where are these men now? In the wake of the recent attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to blow up an airplane over Detroit, it would be enlightening to learn what happened to these two senior al-Qaeda terrorists.

    Are they in prison? Have they been released? Have they returned to the fight? Was either involved in the Detroit attack? Perhaps the most transparent administration in history would like to explain their fates.

    The handling of these terrorists makes a mockery of Obama’s moral preening oninterrogation. The president says he has “banned torture.” On his second day in office, he issued an executive order mandating that “an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States … shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach … that is not authorized by and listed in the Army Field Manual.”

    Handing off to Pakistan

    Yet in the cases of Taifi and Yemeni — and now Baradar — Obama has allowed Pakistan to interrogate these terrorists in our place. They are not under the control of U.S. officials, or detained within a U.S. government facility. While U.S. officials must do everything they can to ensure their humane treatment, the Pakistanis are not required to follow the Army Field Manual or interrogate these terrorists according to the new standards mandated by the Obama administration. And, as The New York Times put it, “the Pakistanis have long been known to subject prisoners to brutal questioning.”

    Allowing foreign intelligence services to question terrorists is a loophole in President Obama’s new, morally superior interrogation policy — one that allows tough interrogations to proceed without staining Obama’s reputation. Such loopholes expose the hypocrisy of Obama’s approach to interrogation. He claims the moral high ground, when all he is actually doing is outsourcing the tough cases.

    The problem is that when interrogations are outsourced, America is dependent on the competence and effectiveness of the foreign intelligence service that is interrogating the terrorist — which is almost certainly less competent and effective than our own interrogators would be. If the terrorists refuse to cooperate, we have no options to compel their cooperation. And the Pakistanis do not need our permission to release or repatriate them.

    Hopefully, Baradar’s interrogation will produce useful intelligence. The fact that he is alive and in questioning is progress. But that does not excuse the fact that America today still has no program to hold and effectively interrogate high-value terrorists ourselves.

  6. 7




    1. We will kill all of al Qaeda.

    “We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We’re determined to do that.” (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)

    The mantra of U.S. military officials who oversee counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policies is “you can’t capture or kill your way out” of problems caused by those using violence to achieve political objectives. It is a slogan based in the real-world experiences of many military commanders and much academic research. For example, a 2008 Rand Corp. study, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, examined 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006. The authors — including Seth Jones, former advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command — found that the vast majority of terrorist groups were eliminated because they either were infiltrated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent) or reached a peaceful political agreement with the government (43 percent).

    Meanwhile, military force — think drones and Navy SEAL raids — eliminated terrorist groups only 7 percent of the time. The reason? “[O]nce the situation in an area becomes untenable for terrorists, they will simply transfer their activity to another area, and the problem remains unresolved.” This is certainly the case in Pakistan, where the CIA drone campaign has killed suspected senior al Qaeda officials, midtier operatives, and more than 1,000 low-level militants. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 3 that, according to two senior U.S. officials, drone strikes have made would-be militants “skittish, prompting some to leave Pakistan for other battlefields in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or their home countries.” Reportedly, some 250 militants have fled in just the past month to fight in Syria, depressing the price of secondhand weapons in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

    Although drone strikes have arguably been effective at killing some senior al Qaeda members in Pakistan, the numbers elsewhere suggest there is a lot of killing yet ahead. The State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011” lists the following estimated strengths of al Qaeda franchises (outside Afghanistan and Pakistan): “1,000-2,000” in Iraq, “under a thousand fighters” in the Islamic Maghreb, “several thousand members” in Somalia, and “a few thousand members” in the Arabian Peninsula (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). Can U.S. drone strikes really kill them all? Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that all individuals affiliated with al Qaeda would be “destroyed and eliminated” without expanding the scope of the problem. As Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Yemen, “AQAP operatives killed in U.S. drone attacks are quickly replaced.”

    2. We prefer capturing suspected terrorists.

    “Whenever it is possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people.” (“Strengthening Our Security by Adhering to Our Values and Laws,” speech, Sept. 16, 2011)

    By the time Obama entered office, the United States had basically quit capturing terrorists in non-battlefield situations. This was not always the case. Although it may be difficult to recall, in the 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives and affiliates were detained in over 100 countries. Most were eventually released, but hundreds of others (plus additional suspected terrorists captured in the subsequent half-decade) were transferred to CIA black sites, Guantánamo Bay, or U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. By no later than 2006, however, the Bush administration stopped detentions because the White House and Congress could not reach an agreement over the legal jurisdiction of captured suspected terrorists.

    In late 2009, this was made plain when Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told Obama, “We do not have a plausible capture strategy.” According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, “The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them.” And in the words of an anonymous “top counterterrorism adviser”: “We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us.… Anyone who says it wasn’t is not being straight.”

    This reality was recently echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees: “We lack, as a nation, a place to put terrorists if we catch them.… I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it’s just easier to kill ’em.” This perverse incentive remains in place today and largely explains why around 3,000 suspected terrorists and militants have been killed by drone strikes under Obama and only a handful have been captured.

  7. 8



    Detaining and Interrogating Terror Suspects:

    National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told us via email that it is simply inaccurate to claim the Obama administration no longer detains and/or interrogates terrorism suspects.

    “As a general rule, the government will always seek to elicit all the actionable intelligence and information we can from terrorist suspects taken into our custody,” Price said.

    We asked Graham’s press office to clarify his claim that the Obama administration has a policy of “not interrogating or detaining terrorist suspects anymore.” It directed us to two articles about the capture of suspected terrorists who Obama administration officials announced would face criminal charges in U.S. court. The articles both noted Republican calls to instead transfer those subjects to Guantanamo for indefinite interrogation.

    In neither case, however, did the decision to try the suspects in U.S. courts preclude interrogation of the suspects.


    In 2009, the White House created an interagency team called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. HIG includes representatives from the FBI, CIA, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies. When terrorism suspects are caught, the team is immediately deployed to put together an interrogation plan on a case-by-case basis. HIG also does research on the most effective methods of interrogation.

    What happens when the U.S. wants to interrogate a suspect before reading him Miranda rights and presenting him to a court? As the Oct. 8, 2013, AP story revealed, “Instead of sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay or secret CIA ‘black’ sites for interrogation, the Obama administration is questioning terrorists for as long as it takes aboard U.S. naval vessels.”

    Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told us that sometimes authorities have delayed the reading of Miranda rights for several weeks, using an expansive version of emergency exemptions. (For example, Anders said, Faisal Shahzad, who was convicted for the attempted 2010 car bombing in New York City’s Times Square was held and interrogated for 13 days under the “public safety” exception to the Miranda rule.)

    “We have some concerns about how those interrogations are carried out,” Anders said of interrogations aboard ships. “There has been very little disclosure about that.”

    Ultimately, though, suspects captured during the Obama presidency have been turned over to the courts for prosecution. While that means a shorter interrogation process than at Guantanamo, CIA Director John Brennan has said the policy has not hampered intelligence gathering.

    In an address at Harvard on Sept. 16, 2011, Brennan said that, “In the past two years alone, we have successfully interrogated several terrorism suspects who were taken into law enforcement custody and prosecuted, including Faisal Shahzad, Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, and many others. In fact, faced with the firm but fair hand of the American justice system, some of the most hardened terrorists have agreed to cooperate with the FBI, providing valuable information about al-Qa’ida’s network, safe houses, recruitment methods, and even their plots and plans.”

    In his speech, Brennan countered critics who claimed the U.S. does not seek to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists, and he argued that prosecuting them in federal courts does not impede intelligence gathering.


    In some cases, the ACLU’s Anders said, investigators have gotten better information from detainees after they have been read their Miranda Rights. The idea that suspects clam up the minute they are read their Miranda Rights and are presented to a court “doesn’t square with the reality of what’s taking place,” he said.

    Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University and an expert on national security law, told us via email: “It’s just not true that we’re no longer interrogating or detaining terrorists. … Each time we’ve arrested a high-value terrorism suspect overseas, they’ve been subjected to at least some sustained period of interrogation prior to their transfer to the United States for purposes of standing criminal trial. Each time that’s happened, Senator Graham has been one of the staunchest defenders of such interrogations, even as they have riled civil libertarians, who fear the government is sidestepping the ordinary rules that would apply to a domestic arrest. The fundamental shift in the Obama administration’s policy has been away from indefinite detention—a policy that necessarily produces ever-less information the longer individuals remain in custody.”

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