by Katharine Daniels
Does the successful bin Laden mission prove that U.S. values as a nation need not be compromised to wage a war on terror? Relying on old-fashioned intelligence techniques like surveillance and data analysis, the Obama administration successfully killed the head of al-Qaida, a figure who remained illusive to the Bush Administration in their eight-year quest to find him.
Between 2001 and 2009 the United States abducted, detained, and tortured innocent civilians and suspected terrorists, turning not only our system of values completely on its head but also breaking international law. In January 2009 newly elected president Barack Obama changed course and issued an Executive Order to end unlawful enhanced interrogation techniques and nominated Leon Panetta to become the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Despite journalists, bloggers, and politicians concerns that Panetta had no intelligence experience, the Panetta choice made perfect sense to me. His belief system, pragmatism, and rejection of torture could rectify the damage wrought by the ideological and barbaric counterterrorism of the Bush era.
Leon Panetta was my congressional representative for eight terms spanning the bulk of my childhood from 1977 to 1993. My recollection of Panetta during that time was as an environmental champion - preventing oil drilling off our coast and establishing our bay as a national marine sanctuary. What I remember most during those years was making a call to Panetta’s office after my efforts at implementing a school wide recycling program failed. Panetta responded by paying a visit to a school assembly to tout the benefits of recycling.
Since Osama bin Laden’s death the question of torture again divides our nation. While some Americans agree with former Vice President Dick Cheney that coercive interrogation techniques such as water-boarding and prolonged isolation “produced some of the results that led to bin Laden’s ultimate capture,” the argument against torture is stronger than before. I believe the appointment of Leon Panetta as head of the CIA was a commendable effort by President Obama to redeem U.S. status as a rule-abiding nation that values human rights and condemns torture.
A March 9, 2008 commentary for our local paper, The Monterey County Herald, sheds light on the values and character of the man who ultimately commanded the Osama bin Laden mission. Leon Panetta criticizes President Bush for vetoing a law requiring the CIA to abide by the same rules on torture as contained in the U.S. Army Field Manual. “Our forefathers prohibited ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ because that was how tyrants and despots ruled in the 1700s,” he wrote. “They wanted an America that was better than that. Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law.”
An earlier 2005 op-ed “Looking for honesty in our leaders,” criticizes the Bush Administration for bogging us down in Iraq when “the fundamental focus of the United States and the world should be on going after al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The truth,” Panetta wrote, “is that they remain the greatest threats to our security.” Panetta characterized our leaders as living in a “fool’s paradise” delivering “political pablum, double talk, and partisan baloney.”
Panetta’s commentaries published throughout 2006 call for campaign finance reform because “If nothing is done to change the way elections are financed in this country, history tells us that little will change.” They describe Congressional immigration reform measures as “the political equivalent of trying to build a dam in a flood and trying to push the water back into the dam.” The commentaries also warn of our nation’s energy crisis “In the absence of leadership, crisis drives policy.” And on Iraq Panetta states, “The government’s sheer incompetence in understanding the lessons of war and nation building have put our men and women in even greater danger.”
It is easy condemn the fear tactics, the use of violence, the detention of civilians and journalists, the mass arrests, and the bans on media, in countries across the Arab world where pro-democracy movements have spread. Yet to point the finger from the United States, at a time when our nation has been forced to reflect on our own anti-democratic nightmare, seems negligent and sadly ironic.
Though one cannot compare U.S. policies in recent years with the autocratic and authoritarian state of affairs in parts of the Arab world, it is possible to imagine where we would end up if we continue on the path of the Bush presidency. What the bin Laden mission proves is that our values as a nation need not be compromised fighting terrorism.
It is my hope that as Secretary of Defense Panetta will continue on the path of reclaiming an ideal standard for democracy – one that Americans and people who believe in freedom everywhere, can be proud of. In this way we can offer our nation and the rest of the world a democracy that is not in name only.
About the Author:
Katharine Daniels is the founder and executive editor of The WIP.