Erik Larson

Jan 24, 2009

Gore Gets His Hawk On

Richard Clarke (former Clinton antiterror czar), in his “Against All Enemies” book, describes a surprisingly hawkish Al Gore, arriving late to a meeting with White House Special Counsel Lloyd Cutler and President Clinton on the subject of “extraordinary rendition” — the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries to be interrogated. Mr. Cutler was strongly objecting to the rendition option, and, as Clarke recounts, had seemed to sway Clinton in his direction, when Gore arrived. According to Clarke, Clinton briefed Gore on the arguments presented in the meeting, and “Gore laughed and said, ‘That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.’”

Gore’s machiavellian moment raises interesting and obvious moral questions that I won’t broach here. But his remark also underscores my own suspicion that, likely, “enhanced interrogation techniques” will continue to be practiced by the CIA whenever it’s believed that such practices may reduce clear and present threats to national interest (such as, say, obtaining information from an Al-Queda operative about a planned attack). For all the hay making about the Bush administration’s policies — and I’ll have more to say in another post about why it’ll be virtually impossible to get a single prosecution if AG-designate Eric Holder ever proceeds with “torture investigations” — covert techniques will likely continue, as I suspect they have for decades, and under Democratic or Republican administrations. As Mr. Gore puts it, of course it’ll violate laws… that’s why it’s covert .

So I think the upshot here is that the Bush administration is guilty indeed, but of a political blunder, and a bad one: next time, don’t brag about use of enhanced techniques as if it’s scoring political points at home. It isn’t. Just leave it covert, and we’ll all be on our way.