The Republicans finally think they’ve found an issue: They’re in favor of torture. Republican House Leader John Boehner channeled the party’s will when he spoke up for the torturers’ cause at a White House meeting with President Obama. But his voice was drowned out (metaphorically) by someone who had previously left the White House for an undisclosed location in suburban Virginia.
Dick Cheney, the avatar of the nonexistent threat of weapons of mass destruction, hastened onto the public stage to blast the President for endangering the national security. Obama’s crime? Releasing memos depicting waterboarding and other techniques borrowed from enemies like the Communist Chinese. It wasn’t Cheney’s first assault on Obama, but it captured singular attention because Cheney plainly was the Bush Administration’s driving force in this wholesale violation of national and international law.
From a Democratic perspective, the emergence of Cheney as the face of the Republican Party is a consummation devoutly to be wished. GOP strategists generally yearn to see Cheney just go away; the last thing they want is for Americans to see the former Vice-President, an antonym for public appeal, become a synonym for their party.
On the merits, Cheney doesn’t even argue half the case—whether torture is wrong in principle, wrong legally, or wrong for American foreign policy. Instead he insists that it worked to some unspecified extent. Secretary of State Clinton pungently understated the obvious when she dismissed him as not “a particularly reliable source.” In fact, last year FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Bush holdover, was asked by an interviewer whether any attacks had been foiled by what Cheney and his acolytes whitewashed as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Mueller was “reluctant to answer,” but then conceded: “I don’t believe that has been the case.” As early as 2002, a Pentagon study warned that torture would elicit “unreliable information.”
So what can torture’s apologists claim? For a while, their prime example was a plot to crash a plane into the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles. They pointed to information supposedly coerced from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top al Qaida operative, who we now know was waterboarded 183 times. It’s a scenario right out of the television show “24”; appropriately it’s also fictional. The plot was derailed in 2002; KSM, as government memos refer to the Sheikh, wasn’t even captured until 2003.
Cheney, seldom daunted by the inconvenient truth, is now demanding the selective declassification of two documents allegedly “proving” the effectiveness of torture—although, of course, he refuses to call it that. (Imagine hoping to be remembered in history as the “waterboarding Vice-President.”) The difficulty, as Bush State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow points out, is that the release of these documents “would only raise questions that would have to be answered with still more disclosures.”
In other words, Cheney hasn’t thought it through—perhaps no surprise from the official who propelled us into the folly of the Iraq War—but in effect he is demanding a Torture Commission to review all the documents and decisions on the dark engine he fired up. That would be the only way to make a definitive judgment on his claims.
The President has resisted the creation of such a commission, to the consternation of many of his own supporters. It’s ironic, to say the least, that Cheney has stumbled into agreement with them by insisting that “the American people [should] have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was.” But how can they do that without a through and independent inquiry?
I doubt Obama will take Cheney’s advice. The President has sought to navigate a fine line on this issue. Those who disagree with his decision to rule out the prosecution of CIA agents who engaged in torture have a point. Do we really want to validate a defense that pleads: “I was only following the memos”? At least why not prosecute the officials who authorized torture and the lawyers who rationalized it? Leave aside the reality that it would be difficult to convict them; the government would have to prove that the legal advice was intentionally and knowingly flawed (as opposed to merely adhering to the Bush norm of gross incompetence). The President’s real reason for resisting criminal cases—or a commission—is a belief that America can’t afford a wave of recrimination and bitter division about the past when we should be concentrating on the urgent business of saving our future.
Obama’s fine line also seems to me to be finely calculated. I think he recognizes that history, too, has its claims, and that the truth will out over time, as it did with Richard Nixon and Watergate. In releasing the memos, he’s sent a clear message of deterrence—that American operatives in the future can’t rely on legal camouflage to justify torture. Indeed what has been too little noted is how the FBI and the Pentagon refused to participate in the Bush-Cheney reign of torture.
The line Obama has drawn is likely to endure. There’s no guarantee, but there wouldn’t be even if the culprits found themselves in court or under inquisitorial klieg lights. And I doubt any subsequent administration would risk a repeat of this dark chapter in our history.
And that’s where Cheney will be left—to history—unless, that is, he inadvertently aids and abets the creation of a Torture Commission. That would only seal his ultimate disgrace; we might even discover, as some allege, that the real object of waterboarding was to extract false confessions endorsing Cheney’s concocted connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.
In the meantime, as we end the First 100 Days, which have marked not just an historic success for Obama but an ideological and political dead end for the Republicans, maybe the GOP will at last disclaim their former Vice-President. They’re already dumping on George W. Bush for the bailouts and “big spending.” Isn’t the betrayal of our laws, our reputation and our core values a graver offense? But if instead the party of “No” lets itself become the party of Cheney, well, in that case they’ll just keep torturing themselves.