The New New Normal
How members of Congress are using the Osama Bin Laden killing to prove they've been right all along about [insert issue here].
The killing of Osama Bin Laden has done something miraculous: It has proved everyone in Washington right. Did you think the war in Afghanistan was a waste of effort, or did you think it was the right war at the right time? Did you defend George W. Bush's interrogation policies, or did you raise a glass when Barack Obama ended them? Whatever you were saying, you were dead on. Take two examples from the past 24 hours.
"This idea—we caught Bin Laden because of waterboarding—I think is a misstatement," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to reporters on Tuesday. "This whole concept of how we caught Bin Laden is a lot of work over time by different people, and putting a puzzle together." He emphasized it again. "I do not believe this is a time to celebrate waterboarding. I believe this is a time to celebrate hard work."
This was not what Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., had been saying a day earlier.
"We obtained that information through waterboarding," the chairman of the House Homeland Security told Bill O'Reilly. "So for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to Bin Laden."
Washington has just seen Obama approve a successful, extra-sovereign hit on the head of al-Qaida. What does that do to two years—more than that, if you go back to the campaign—of the hawks' consensus that Obama's feckless war-on-terror strategy can't possibly work? How does it change the way the war on terror is conducted? The capture of Bin Laden is a rare thing: an event that inspires victory celebrations in the streets, without the sort of changes that usually come after a victory.
Start with waterboarding and "enhanced interrogations." Supporters of the old Bush policy started spinning the Bin Laden capture as a validation pretty soon after the news broke. "It's an enhanced interrogation program that we put in place back in our first term," former Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News. "It wouldn't be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture." And on Tuesday night, pressed by Brian Williams, Leon Panetta confirmed that some of the information that led to Bin Laden—a manhunt that stretched over a decade—was gleaned from "enhanced interrogation techniques."
How might this have worked? On March 1, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was captured. He was interrogated, but according to a report declassified in 2009, he was a fount of mostly useless information until he was broken by 183 waterboardings and more than a week of sleep deprivation. After that, he was pliable. And according to the Associated Press, it was KSM who provided the nickname that eventually allowed the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden's courier.
Did the information come because KSM was waterboarded, or could you say that KSM was waterboarded at one point in time, and he provided key information at another point in time? There's just enough fog there to allow everyone to walk out of this with a fact he or she likes. On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein repeatedly told reporters that the information that led to Bin Laden did not come from enhanced interrogation. "I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted," said Feinstein. "And in my mind, nothing justifies the procedures that were used."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.