Cheney & The Torture Memos

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.


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9 years 6 months ago
I agree that torture is an intrinsic evil but that is not the issue. The issue has to do with where the line should be drawn concerning an aggressive interrogation? If a population of innocent people are threatened and there is good intellegence that a person knows the plot then what should be the limits of the interrogation? Unfortunately president Obama my have to deal with this concerning a terrorist nuclear attack. I hope that you are right and that if we are threatened that the necessary info can be obtained by asking nicely. I think that it would help if more memos were released concerning the specific interrogation and the sequence and content of info obtain. Even if we are proved to have gone too far in the past this info would help me decide where that line should be drawn in the future. I do not think that ALL aggressive interrogation is torture. Unfortunately president Obama has not given himself much room for any significant interrogation to protect the innocent people of this country.
9 years 6 months ago
I just thought I would add my son's observation to finding out how many times two of the terrorists were subjected to waterboarding in a day. He asked, "How many times did it take before the guy thought, 'hey, I'm not really drowning'?" Surely if any useful information came out of this, it was the result of wearing the person down, not the result of the specific torture. People can be worn down by other means that do not degrade the interrogator. This would include kindness.
9 years 6 months ago
I've seen the effects of torture and known those on who it has been employed. It is a matter of gravest shame that our nation has been engaged in these actions -- no matter what rationale is employed to justify them. And as a Catholic, there is no justification possible -- the proscription against torture could not be more clearly spelled out than it is in the Catechism.
9 years 6 months ago
The end does not justify the means because, the means is an act onto itself that is evaluated independently. The evil in the means cannot be changed by the goodness of the end.
9 years 6 months ago
No one said it better than then-Senator Hillary Clinton during a September 2006 debate on Military Commissions Act of 2006 (which later passed in the Senate 65-34-1 and the House 250-170-12): ''Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach? By allowing this administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture, we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger, and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might.'' Now we are finding out just how low we have fallen.


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