September 20, 2006 | USA Today

Opposing View: Intelligence Comes First

The case of Maher Arar, a Canadian Muslim allegedly tortured in Syria after being taken there by the CIA, warrants scrutiny. So, indeed, does the whole practice of rendition, a favorite of the Clinton administration long before the Sept. 11 attacks.

U.S. treaty obligations forbid transporting people to countries where we have reason to believe they'll be tortured. Syria, moreover, is not only a torture state but a terror state. We should regard it as an enemy, not a collaborator. (Read Our view)

But with the lives of 300 million Americans at stake, the United States cannot make national security policy based on individual anecdotes about government roguishness.

Intelligence is singularly crucial in the war on terror. A terror network has no territory or treasury to defend. We can't bomb friendly countries where it is embedded, much less our own cities where its threat to us is greatest. Our only weapon is intelligence. Without it, we'll have to accept the preventable deaths of American soldiers and civilians. That is not acceptable.

Last year's legislation by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., extended Fifth Amendment protections to alien enemy combatants. In my view, that gave al-Qaeda captives the right to Miranda warnings, at least if we hope to use confession evidence at trial. Now, McCain champions opposition to the president's urgently needed effort to clarify hopelessly vague Geneva Convention terms recently imposed by the Supreme Court — such as a prohibition of “degrading treatment.”

No one is urging torture. It's illegal. But there are many tactics, short of torture, that have proved effective in wringing life-saving intelligence from jihadists, who are trained to resist interrogation. Without latitude and clear guidance about what is permissible, our interrogators would be vulnerable to war crime charges just for doing their jobs.

Yes, rogues need to be rooted out. But the vast majority of our agents are honorable. They will follow the rules if Congress tells them what is and is not permissible — common sense McCain obstinately resists. If Congress follows his lead and abdicates its duty, the highest quality intelligence will be lost, and with it American lives.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted terrorism cases, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.