Finally, Cheney pounded Obama for wanting to investigate and possibly prosecute, on criminal charges, those who approved and conducted the enhanced interrogations. Or, rather, he employed semantic sleight of hand—another long-standing Cheney technique—to suggest that this is what Obama wants. At first, Cheney said, "Over on the left wing of the president's party … some are … demanding" such prosecutions. In the next sentence, he said, "It's hard to imagine a worse precedent … than to have an incoming administration criminalizing the policy decisions of its predecessors." (Italics added.)
By conflating "the left wing of the president's party" with the "incoming administration," Cheney aimed to leave the impression a) that Obama is left wing and b) that he is pushing for show trials.
This isn't just sneaky—it's wrong. First, as many left-wing Democrats have begun to discover, Obama is no leftist. Second, in his speech today, Obama clearly rejected the idea of prosecutions. Decrying "a return of the politicization of these issues" on both sides of the spectrum, Obama said, "I have no interest in spending our time relitigating the policies of the last eight years."
However, in the course of inveighing against official inquiries (perhaps because, if they ever took place, he would certainly find himself in the docket), Cheney also condemned an idea that—if he is telling the truth—would serve his interests. This is the idea of convening a "Truth Commission," and it may be the one idea that might settle the only legitimate question that Cheney raised in his speech: Does torture work? Or, to put it another way: Should a president take the option of torture irrevocably off the table? Are there circumstances under which he might want to put it back on?
Cheney's main point, in his speech and in other recent statements, is that torture (even if he doesn't want to call it that) works; that it squeezed important information out of the few "high-value" terrorists on whom it was inflicted; that this information saved thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of lives; that there are documents supporting this claim, and that Obama should declassify and release them.
Obama disputes this point. "As commander-in-chief," he said in his speech this morning, "I see the intelligence … and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation."
The preponderance of available evidence supports Obama's side of the argument: that torture does not work; that, to the extent it does get someone to talk, what he says is often untrue; that some al-Qaida terrorists were water-boarded several times a day, for up to a month, and still didn't provide the information that top Bush officials wanted them to say; and that the most useful information was gained through more creative, less violent means.
But look: We—meaning those of us who don't have special, compartmentalized security clearances—don't know, can't possibly know, the full story. Were there cases in which CIA interrogators learned a lot by torturing a prisoner? Did those revelations save lives? Could the information have been acquired through other means?
The objections to torture—expressed not just by President Obama, but by many others, including Sen. John McCain and nearly every senior U.S. military officer who has spoken out on the subject—may well hold, even if it happens that torture did "work" on a few occasions.
But this debate is far from over. Today's two speeches are more likely to intensify than settle the controversy. What's wrong with assembling a truth commission, an independent body empowered to examine all the documents and subpoena witnesses, behind firmly closed doors? Cheney said at the start of the speech that his successors' policies should be based on "a truthful telling of history." Let the telling begin.
AP Video: President Obama Calls Guantanamo "a Mess"