Sometimes, in politics, something that is said by a politician is so outrageous that it is the late night comics, not the newsmen, who capture the essence of the absurdity. So it is with the remarks of former Vice-President of the United States Dick Cheney regarding the release of Justice Department memos regarding the justification for and use of torture. Take the time and watch this clip from The Daily Show.
Cheney is the most sinister person to have held public office since Nixon. (And Nixon at least pursued centrist, sometimes even forward-thinking, policies.) Cheney said that it was wrong to release the memos without also releasing CIA memos that show how successful these "interrogation techniques" were. The ends justify the means. But, in this case, how would we even know that the ends justify the means? Might not alternate methods of interrogation have also yielded the same or better information? Interrogation experts are divided.
A similar unanswerable quality attends to Cheney’s other assertion, that Obama’s policies have made America less safe. When Cheney still had an office in the White House – that is to say, before the American people repudiated his and his boss’s policies by voting overwhelmingly for the opposition party – he would say it was self-evident that the GOP approach was working because America had not been attacked again since 9/11. Of course, the more likely explanation is that such grandiose attacks as that which occurred on 9/11 take years of planning and there seems to be some egoistic impulse in the terroristic mind that compels them to seek such grandiose carnage. But, America has not been attacked on Obama’s watch, so how does Cheney know that we are less safe.
The truly outrageous part of Cheney’s interview, and of the arguments put forward by former CIA Director Michael Hayden and others, is that the release of these memos about torture will permit the terrorists to train to resist these methods on the future. Apart from the fact that these methods had been well known and written about, there is the fact that we don’t care of the terrorists train to resist these methods of torture because we don’t intend to use them ever again. They are illegal. And, for all you Catholics who are still carrying water for the GOP, torture is an intrinsic evil, something that can never be justified under any circumstances.
President George W. Bush had assured the American people "We don’t torture" and that turned out to be wrong. Like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like the economic benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy.
This morning’s Post has a more refined argument by David Ignatius, but it, too, misses the point. He worries that the release of the memos will damage morale at Langley, that CIA operatives will become unwilling to take risks in the future. If exposing the illegality of torture makes CUA operatives less likely to indulge it in the future, that is the idea. Taking risk and torture are not the same thing. As World War II came to a close, Stalin gave orders that any German soldier who said he was just following orders was to be shot on the spot. (Those who were defending their homeland became POWs.) I am no fan of Stalin, but he recognized something Ignatius misses.
I am conflicted, however, about whether or not to seek prosecutions of anyone in these matters. Evidently, President Obama is conflicted too. In the past few years, something truly terrible has happened to American politics: Our domestic political squabbles have left the shore. During the Cold War, politics stopped at the water’s edge. Harry Truman and Arthur Vandenburg collaborated as did Richard Nixon and Scoop Jackson. There may be no going back. But, if there is even the remotest possibility of isolating the Cheney wing of the GOP and the MoveOn wing of the Dems, and forging a new bipartisan foreign policy, we must try. Dick Lugar is no Dick Cheney, and the Senate, unlike the House, has not and cannot be redistricted in such a way that its members must worry more about their own party’s extremists who decide primaries than about the centrists who decide general elections. Overlooking torture is a lot to ask. But, in this case, the ends really do justify the means.