In the Arena

Cheney Still Tortured

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As Michael Scherer notes below, Dick Cheney has now accused the Obama Administration of politicizing the Justice Department…after his Administration criminalized the Justice Department. But then, we’ve come to expect goofball stuff from the former veep who served, in effect, as President of Foreign Policy in GW Bush’s first term.

The subject here is CIA torture, which Cheney defends. He claims that the newly released documents show that torture elicited valuable information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, among others. That’s a major league exaggeration. Apparently some new information was elicited, but there are caveats–Abu Zubaydah had disclosed his most valuable information to the FBI, which used a more civilized and psychologically sophisticated interrogation method; KSM’s new information was marginal and might have been elicited by the FBI methods. The idea that you have to fire weapons, produce electric drills and threaten to kill terrorists’ kds in order to get results is crude, to say the least. But then, so is Cheney’s sense of  the U.S. Constitution (and of democracy, in general).

The most important thing about the CIA Inspector General’s report is its very existence. It was ordered up after internal complaints from CIA staffers that the interrogation program had gone off the rails. It states, unequivocally, that the Cheney-approved torture was a departure from past CIA practice (and international law) and there was an expectation that there would likely be “long-term legal challenges.”

There is an interesting argument to be had here about whether torture is worth it if it produces information that would save American lives. I’d like to see a debate on that subject between Cheney and Ali Soufan, the FBI terrorist interrogator who, as opposed to Cheney, actually knows what he is talking about. But Cheney holds all who dispute him in disdain–it is his most striking personal characteristic– so a debate is unlikely.

The more frustrating argument is over how or whether the abuses catalogued in the IG’s report should be prosecuted. For those of us of a certain age, a Special Prosecutor conjures up memories of half-crazed Inspectors Javert run amok in open-ended investigations of nothing very important (Every Clinton-era investigation, for example). It would be horrible if a Special Prosecutor began rousting around the world of clandestine action, which, of necessity, exists on the borderline of “legal” and “not-so-legal, but entirely necessary.” Even before the latest report was released, the chilling effect–the undue caution induced in clandestine practitioners, the unwillingness to take chances lest their murky doings be exposed by over-eager legal absolutists–may be harming our national security.  The First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution are not absolute. There has to be a careful balance between individual and public rights–to government information, to personal privacy–and the necessities of national security. It is also likely that criminal prosecutions will yield the CIA equivalent of Lynndie England–and the real miscreants who ordered the torture, like Cheney, will be free to go hunting.

On the other hand, in this case, we’re talking about CIA personnel who violated the already extreme torture rules approved by the Cheney-Bush Administration….those who water-boarded the pathetic, demented Abu Zubaydah 83 times in ways that far exceeded the guidelines laid down by the Cheney-managed Office of Legal Counsel. I’m not sure that we want to have people who threaten naked prisoners with electric drills remain in the service of our country. I would hope that there’s a bright line to be drawn here–prosecution only for those who violated the Justice Department’s rules. I would also hope that this can be done as quickly and quietly as possible, within a very strictly circumscribed area of operations for the special prosecutor, should one be appointed, lest we further cripple an absolutely necessary–if necessarily unsavory–arm of our government.