Cheney's tortured argumentsWhat a difference an election makes. Our national position has now shifted from “We don’t torture”
By: Clarence Page, The Dickinson Press
What a difference an election makes. Our national position has now shifted from “We don’t torture” to “We don’t torture anymore.”
Let us, then, disabuse ourselves of former President George W. Bush’s notion that waterboarding and the other so-called “harsh” or “enhanced” interrogation techniques are anything but torture. Euphemism is the first refuge of scoundrels — and the merely desperate.
President Obama wants to help us as a country to reconcile our shameful torture period. He says repeatedly that he wants to “look forward” and “not backwards.” He absolved CIA officers from prosecution for the inhumanities of harsh interrogation. That’s OK by me. It’s not quite fair to prosecute lower end of the food chain while top policy makers walk free — and this country has little appetite for a criminal trial of Team Bush that would amount to enhanced Monday-morning quarterbacking.
But the torture debate won’t go away soon, especially since April 16. That’s when the Obama administration released four Justice Department memos in which Bush’s administration defined its “enhanced” techniques. The disclosures have only fired up the already heated debate about whether waterboarding and other torture techniques actually prevented any acts of terror.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney says they did. President Obama says, uh, not so fast.
This is not a small question, since about 70 percent of the public tells pollsters they support worse torture than waterboarding, if it will prevent an attack. Sure. Who wouldn’t? The choice sounds like a no-brainer when you phrase the question like that, especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of Fox TV’s terror-fighting thriller “24.” Unfortunately, scholars in counterterrorism point out, real life ain’t like the movies.
So now that Cheney has a legacy to salvage and a sure-to-be-best-selling book in the works, he is relaxing even his famous obsession for secrecy. To back up his case, he is requesting through his publisher that the Obama administration release previously classified documents. Do it. Please.
In fact, don’t stop there, Mr. Cheney. Let’s have a full-fledged truth commission-style investigation into the tortures of the Bush years — not necessarily to prosecute anyone, since the debate has become so muddied by misinformation and disinformation, but to separate fact from enhanced nonfiction.
Cheney growls a good game on the talk shows as he complains about Obama’s anti-torture stance. But the Bush-Cheney evidence and arguments have raised more questions than they have answered.
For example, former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen argued dramatically in an April 21 Washington Post op-ed that “without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.”
Specifically, Thiessen argues, the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, “led to the discovery” of a plot to crash planes into the U.S. Bank Tower, then known as the Library Tower, in downtown Los Angeles, the tallest building on the West Coast.
But, as Slate.com senior editor Tim Noah was the first to note, the big flaw in Thiessen’s claim is chronology. Bush’s own counterterrorism officials told reporters that the L.A. plot effectively ended when its cell leader was arrested in February 2002. Sheikh Mohammad was not captured until March 2003, a year after the Bush White House said the plot fell apart. So much for Thiessen’s “hole in the ground.”
Does torture work? Contrary to the certainty expressed by Cheney and Co., torture has been a topic of heated debate within the intelligence community and between the CIA, FBI, State Department and Justice Department for years.
More significant, Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who worked closely with Zubaydah, says the FBI did extract crucial intelligence, but long before Zubaydah was subjected to harsh techniques. In an op-ed in The New York Times and a series of interviews with Newsweek, Soufan described how he and an FBI colleague got the terror suspect talking by gaining his confidence without violence.
Then there’s National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, Obama’s top intelligence adviser. He told intelligence personnel on April 16 that “high-value information” came from harsh interrogation methods. But in a later statement, he backed away, saying “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.” Besides, he conceded, “the damage” these techniques “have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.” Nice backpedaling, sir.
The truth? We need a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission in the spirit of the 9/11 Commission to hear some of that. A truth commission won’t satisfy everyone. Americans still argue, for example, about the Warren Commission and whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But at least those of us who have a quaint, old-fashioned interest in facts will have something on which to build new laws and a new torture policy. I suggest we begin with the words, “Don’t do it.”
— Page writes for Tribune Media Services.