Why Americans agree with Dick Cheney on torture
Attention, those who have strong reservations about the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques: We're swimming against the tide.
Half of the American public believes that the CIA's torture program was justified, even as nearly three quarters believe that water-boarding is torture. (Only 29 percent believe that it is not; the rest do not know.)
Americans believe the program was justified even though they don't think the CIA was telling the truth. They believe it was justified despite thinking its protocols and procedures crossed the line. They admit they don't know enough about the program to justify their own opinions, and 57 percent believe that the CIA uses the enhanced techniques even today.
So: secrecy, good; torture, good, so long as it gets the job done.
It should be news that a former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, has endorsed the incarceration and mistreatment of prisoners so long as, "we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States."
It's not, because it reflects what so many Americans just know, in their guts. We are a hard people, sometimes.
Many, if not most, Americans (including Dick Cheney) would have condemned as a false equivalence any comparison of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program with the willful slaughter of innocents by nation-states and terrorist groups outside the Western tradition of the rule of law. Since we love freedom, we are self-correcting. We go out of our way to recognize the dignity of everyone. To Cheney, we should be held to different standards.
I'd suggest that those standards are higher; Cheney would lower them considerably, but hey. Modus Vivendi.
Now, Cheney is not just defending torture, although he refuses to call it torture. He is defending the incidental torture of innocents. Conor Friedersdorf shows how Cheney's argument collapses in on itself, and even those who support the CIA's program should try and wrestle with the implications.
Morality aside, even if you use Cheney's own criteria as the arbiter of whether the whole thing was worth it, you rather quickly end up knocking the sense out of your own brain.
He says the objective is to "get the guys" who planned 9/11 and "to avoid another attack against the United States." So long as that objective is met, he can live with himself even if he knows that a quarter (at least) of those captured by the CIA had nothing to do with September 11 or subsequent attacks against American troops. (This is not how the head of the National Clandestine Service at the time, Jose Rodriguez, or CIA directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden, view the program. Hayden does not want to be associated with it, even though he thinks it produced useful intelligence. Rodriguez recognizes serious mistakes.)
But the torture did not prevent another attack against the United States. Other intelligence did, including the NSA's collection programs, the CIA's pre-torture interrogations, and human sources unrelated to the program.
You will notice that Osama bin Laden's capture is attributed by the program's defenders in part to the information provided by Khalid Sheik Mohammed after his waterboarding. And bin Laden's killing certainly heralded the end of the first era of al Qaeda.
But Cheney's boss, George W. Bush, did not believe that bin Laden's death or capture was critical to al Qaeda's dismantlement. In June of 2002, Bush said he just doesn't "spend that much time on him, to be honest with you. Who knows if he'd hiding in a cave or not. We haven't heard from him in a long time. The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission."
And as Cheney himself noted, al Qaeda has metastasized. It is not defeated now. The "guys" who planned September 11th are either dead or sequestered forever at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and surely this satisfies our lust for revenge, but even the most reflexive defenders of the Bush-Cheney foreign policy — especially them, actually — believe that terror remains the gravest threat to the country.
The implication is clear: Cheney would still have us torturing innocents, even today.
I can only think of Cheney now as the personification of the Cult of Terror, that September 11th, 2001 political construct that gave Americans license to act outside the stream of history instead of at its headwaters, and to suppress dissent in the name of state security. What makes this scarier, even, and why I feel justified in calling it a cult, is that it also suppresses, denigrates, and stigmatizes the moral and political foundations that it seeks to protect. It's an American cult, because it plays to our own biases about what makes us special. It is not unique or exceptional.
Here's a transcript of Dick Cheney's interview, because it really is worth taking a look yourself.
Let me ask you, what do you say to Gul Rahman, what do you say to Sulaiman Abdula, what do you say to Khalid al-Masri? All three of these folks were detained, they had these interrogation techniques used on them. They eventually were found to be innocent. They were released, no apologies, nothing.
What do we owe them?
I mean, let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.
--right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. Of the 600 and some people who were released out of Guantanamo, 30 percent roughly ended up back on the battlefield. Today we're very concerned about ISIS. Terrible new terrorist organization.
It is headed by a man named Baghdadi. Baghdadi was in the custody of the U.S. military in Iraq in Camp Bucca. He was let go and now he's out leading the terror attack against the United States. I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.
25 percent of the detainees though, 25 percent turned out to be innocent. They were released.
Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are--
Well, I'm asking you.
--you going to know?
Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?
I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.