Who knew what, when?” The question that gripped the nation during Watergate is back, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. This time, though, the issue is torture. Attorney General Michael Mukasey last week appointed a career federal prosecutor to mount a full-blown criminal investigation into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes made during the interrogation of two al Qaida operatives in 2002. The tapes, which may show U.S. officers engaging in waterboarding and other coercive techniques, were never provided to the courts or the Sept. 11 commission, and prosecutors will examine whether their destruction in 2005 amounted to obstruction of justice. Obstruction isn’t the only crime in question here, said The New York Times. The tapes may have proved that the CIA, “under the president’s authority,” committed a war crime. If the order to destroy them came from the White House, the political and legal repercussions would be staggering.
If the White House was involved, said Dan Froomkin in TheWashingtonPost.com, the guy giving the orders may have been Dick Cheney. In the Bush administration, the vice president “has been the central figure on all things related to torture,” including a failed lobbying effort to exempt the CIA from a torture ban. One of the officials who participated in meetings about whether to destroy the tapes, we already know, was David Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff and longtime legal counsel. It’s hard to imagine that Addington advised the CIA not to destroy the tapes, or that the CIA would have done it against his—and presumably Cheney’s—wishes. “So one has to wonder what will happen if Addington is hauled in front of a grand jury to testify not just about his relevant conversations with the CIA, but about his conversations with Cheney.”
Watch what you wish for, said The Wall Street Journal. With the nation at war against a ruthless enemy, there are people in our government doing their best “to keep the country safe.” Yet, just as in the “manufactured outrage over wiretapping,” we are succumbing to the impulse to “criminalize” what are essentially political disagreements over what tools should be used in the war on terror. The CIA agents conducting those interrogations weren’t “rogues”; they were doing their jobs under rules established by the Justice Department and tacitly approved by Congress. “But why should any future agent take any risks to gather information, or pursue an enemy, if he thinks he is likely to have to answer to some future prosecutor for his every action?”