Dick Cheney's unique gift for making hard questions easy and vice versa.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 22 2008 7:14 PM

Open and Shut Cases

Dick Cheney's unique gift for making hard questions easy and vice versa.

Dick Cheney. Click image to expand.
Dick Cheney

In an ever-escalating game of chicken between the executive branch and the rest of the world, Vice President Dick Cheney wants you to understand that he has done nothing wrong over the past eight years. In fact, to hear him tell it to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday, we are all safer for his infallibility in the face of our own complacency. His liberal critics, for their part, answer Cheney's moral certainty by continuing to vigorously debate all the reasons to let him off the hook. What other possible response can there be to all that bristling manliness? History will remember Dick Cheney as the man who managed to make President George W. Bush look like a wimp.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

One hesitates to waste too much time deconstructing Cheney's last-minute debater's tricks. The threats and insults stopped being impressive a long time ago. But the vice president's greatest rhetorical sleight of hand may be that he has completely inverted settled and open legal questions. As he snarks his way through his final exit interviews, he takes the position that the thorniest legal questions are the easy ones and the settled ones are still open.

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First there's Cheney on the efficacy of torture. In his ABC interview last week he swaggered, "I think, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the No. 3 man in al-Qaida, the man who planned the attacks of 9/11, provided us with a wealth of information. There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al-Qaida came from that one source."

Could this be a close call? In fact, the debate ended years ago, almost as soon as it began. You may remember back in 2002, some of us were actually engaged in discussing this issue. Alan Dershowitz at Harvard was poking at the possibility of judge-sanctioned torture warrants. Those charged with setting interrogation policy at Guantanamo were seeking inspiration from Jack Bauer. And boneheads like me were positing fascinating hypotheticals about the possible efficacy of abusing our prisoners.

Well, guess what? The efficacy of torture is not a close question anywhere outside of Fox television anymore. Darius Rejali has definitively studied the question and showed that torture does not elicit truthful confessions. In his book How To Break a Terrorist, former interrogator Matthew Alexander agrees that abusive interrogation techniques don't work and endanger Americans. FBI Director Robert Mueller recently told Vanity Fair's David Rose that he doesn't "believe it to be the case" that enhanced interrogation stopped any attacks on America. And the stunning bipartisan report issued earlier this month by the Senate armed services committee confirms that lawyers in every branch of the military consistently warned top Bush officials that torture wasn't effective. The handful of people—including Dick Cheney—who are still blathering about how well torture works do so in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

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