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Former U.S. secretary of defence William Cohen. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Former U.S. secretary of defence William Cohen. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

William Cohen: ‘There is no such thing as a bloodless war’ Add to ...

Republican William Cohen had served a quarter of a century in the U.S. Congress – three terms in the House of Representatives, and three in the Senate – when Democratic president Bill Clinton asked him to become secretary of defence.

It was an unusual bipartisan request that Mr. Cohen didn’t hesitate to accept. “In Maine,” he explained, “people care more about the person than they do about the party.”

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Mr. Cohen would oversee U.S. military operations in Kosovo and the containment of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But nothing prepared him for Osama bin Laden’s attack on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Within days, he recommended long-range missile attacks on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Mr. Clinton agreed – but the attacks missed the mark and may have emboldened al-Qaeda.

Containing terrorism isn’t getting any easier, with news of an ongoing militia presence in Benghazi, and deep concerns over America’s projected pullout from Afghanistan. Questions also continue regarding the ethics of U.S. military action: the use of drones, and, as spotlighted in next weekend’s Oscar contender Zero Dark Thirty, the value of torture.

The Globe and Mail talked to Mr. Cohen, in Toronto for the Grano Speaker Series this week, about his take on “moral” warfare.

You recommended those 1998 strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan. Were you comfortable with the call

I was. There was reliable, actionable intelligence. In the case of Afganistan, we were told that bin Laden was going to be at a certain camp for a number of hours. Unfortunately, he left before the missiles arrived. So they ended up killing a number of people in the camp.

But it was a terrorist camp. So, it was the right call.

In Sudan, intelligence said a pharmaceutical plant was producing a precursor to chemical weapons. It turned out they weren’t, and one individual was killed. But when I testified on Capitol Hill, I said, “Look, given all of these things … if I had failed to take action and it turned out to be producing this stuff, I’d be up here explaining why I had failed to act.”

Since then, the United States has carried out increasing attacks using unmanned drones. How do you prevent that from getting out of hand?

First of all, you must start from the proposition that there’s no such thing as a bloodless war – the idea that war can be some kind of antiseptic video game has to be discouraged.

Whenever you’re sending drones or pilots firing missiles, you’re killing people. One hopes it’s only the enemy, but there is also collateral damage. I don’t even like the phrase – it means killing innocent people.

In deciding whether to use drones, the questions should include: Who gets to select the targets, what is the intelligence based on, and who gets to make the final decision? Right now, the president makes the final decision. That’s all well and good, but I think there has to be an independent body in the process. It could be a small outside court, or people from the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

Is that practical?

Obviously, when a president has to act instantaneously, there’s no time for prior approval. But if you’re talking about targeting individuals over a period of time, there needs to be some independent set of eyes. When we were in Kosovo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and I would meet with the president and the national security adviser and go over our list of targets: What was on the list? What was the time of day or night? What was the likelihood of other people being within reach?

How can you even be sure of the target you’re hitting?

You have to be as precise as you can, knowing that innocent people are going to die in this process. You have to take great care to minimize this, And you must always ask: Is the goal here worth what we’re likely to produce as a backlash? The commander-in-chief and his advisers have to make that decision. And then you say, “Okay, that’s what we elect you for. Now, you have to be held accountable so let’s review it.”

Can you be sure of intelligence gathered from drones or satellites?

No, you need people on the ground. You need the support of your allies. You need indigenous people with good information. And you have to satisfy yourself of their integrity, their reliability. Sometimes you may find yourself getting bad information for reasons that have nothing to do with what you have in mind, but may be personal or a power struggle. Look at the intelligence they had on bin Laden; how long that took to develop it.

Does torture have any place in gathering intelligence?

As a policy, as a rule, we should never tolerate the infliction of torture.

There might be a circumstance, when there’s intelligence about something devastating to the U.S., and an individual, we are satisfied, is the only person who can stop that. Then, the president is going to say, “I’m going to authorize whatever technique is required to get this information.” And he will be held accountable.

But if you start off with the proposition that virtually anything goes, or you have ill-defined enhanced interrogation techniques, then I think you’ve lowered the bar – we’ve lost our moral standing to condemn the horrific things inflicted by other countries when they capture our men and women.

There’s an ongoing debate about what constitutes torture: Is waterboarding torture? Anyone who thinks it’s not torture should go through it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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