Why does anyone still listen to what Dick Cheney has to say?
This morning's back-to-back speeches on torture and terrorism—first by President Barack Obama, then by the former vice president—could have been an opportunity to weigh competing arguments, examine their premises, and chart an agenda for a serious debate.
Obama's speech did exactly that. He spelled out his logic, backed up his talking points with facts, and put forth a policy grounded—at least in his view—not just in lofty ideals but also in hardheaded assessments of national security. Those who disagree with his conclusions could come away at least knowing where their paths diverged—what claims they'd need to challenge in mounting their opposition.
Cheney, on the other hand, built a case on straw men, red herrings, and lies. In short, his speech was classic Dick Cheney, with all the familiar scowls and scorn intact. The Manichean worldview, which Cheney advanced and enforced while in office, was on full display. After justifying "enhanced interrogation methods," as part of the Bush administration's "comprehensive strategy" in the wake of 9/11—and noting that the next seven and a half years saw no follow-on attack—he said this:
So we're left to draw one of two conclusions, and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event … and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort.
This is a blatant evasion. The debate—or one of the debates—is, in fact, over whether or not the war on terror required "tough interrogations," as Cheney called them. Does he believe—should anyone else believe—that removing one chunk of this strategy would cause the whole edifice to topple? If these interrogations are so essential, why did President Bush stop them in 2004? And why haven't we been attacked since?
Cheney's evasiveness is more basic than this. He still refuses to acknowledge what nearly everyone else has: that these interrogations did amount to torture. "Torture was never permitted," he said, even while conceding the occasional water-boarding. These methods, he noted, "were given careful legal review before they were approved"—ignoring that these legal reviews were conducted by his own aides and have since been discredited almost uniformly.
Still, he persists. To call this program "torture," he went on, "is to libel the dedicated professionals"—the "carefully chosen" CIA personnel who conducted the interrogations—"and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims." Of course, it does no such thing. Most of the criticisms, including President Obama's, have been directed at the Bush administration's top policymakers, not at those who carried out their orders. And nobody is claiming that the subjects of interrogation were "victims," much less "innocent." To decry torture does not imply the slightest sympathy for the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Cheney then dismissed the idea—hardly Obama's alone—that the interrogation policies and the detention operations at Guantanamo have served as a "recruitment tool" for al-Qaida and other terrorists. This claim, he said, "excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrain from the Left: We brought it on ourselves."
This is nonsense on a few levels. Nobody is claiming that Osama Bin Laden and his crew would go away if we treated prisoners more nicely. However, it is indisputable that the reports of torture, the photos from Abu Ghraib, and the legal limbo at Guantanamo have galvanized al-Qaida's recruitment campaigns. Everyone acknowledges this, hardly just "the Left." It's why many Republicans lamented the news stories and the photographs—because they might help the enemy.
Cheney's next volley against Obama—for releasing the Bush administration's legal documents that justified water-boarding and other harsh practices—was where the outright lying began. "President Obama has reserved unto himself the right to order the use of enhanced interrogation, should he deem it appropriate," Cheney said. Yet, this authority would have little use because, thanks to the release of the documents, "the enemy now knows exactly what interrogation methods to train against."
This argument might make sense, except that Obama has not reserved the right to use enhanced interrogation. In fact, he has explicitly, repeatedly, and unconditionally banned the practice. In his speech this morning, Obama said there was no security risk in releasing the Bush documents precisely because they no longer reflect U.S. policy.
AP Video: Cheney to Obama: No Compromise
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"