The Pro-Cheney Case For A Torture Commission

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As Daniel Larison notes, the one place where Obama explicitly invoked "false choices" in yesterday's speech was his Bush-rebuking reference to "the choice between our safety and our ideals." This comes a week after Evan Thomas and Stuart Taylor attracted a great deal of attention (much of it unfavorable) for a Newsweek cover story arguing that Obama may end up following in Dick Cheney's footsteps on at least some hot-button national security issues - and a week, as well, after Cheney himself told Jim Lehrer that if the Obama Administration doesn't continue "the interrogation program for high-value detainees ... they will, in fact, put the nation at risk." And it comes amid a great deal of intra-liberal debate about how Obama should deal with the outgoing administration's record on detainee treatment: With prosecutions for torture and war crimes? With some sort of "truth and reconcialition" investigative commission? Or - the most likely answer, and the most in keeping with previous American history - by simply doing nothing at all?

One would hardly expect Dick Cheney to endorse his own prosecution. But I think there's a reasonable case that given what I take to be his own premises about the torture debate - that the acts of interrogative violence the administration employed were justified by the stakes involved and the intelligence they produced - the outgoing Vice President should support an investigative commission charged with assessing the consequences of the Bush Administration's detainee policy. Time and again, Cheney has insisted that any gains the U.S. has made in its efforts against Al Qaeda have depended on information from "high-value" detainees like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah that could only be extracted through extreme measures. But so far, the evidence marshaled to support his contention has been distinctly limited - and most of the insider-ish testimony on the subject, usually filtered through the work of the administration's critics, has tended to support the argument that torture is both morally wrong and largely ineffective. This is a high-stakes debate, to put it mildly. And if Cheney (or any of the many conservatives who share his perspective) believes what says he believes - if he thinks the future security of the United States depends on a willingness to take a consequentialist approach to, say, the waterboarding of leading terrorists - then he ought to be willing to advance a public and detailed case, before an independent commission, that the consequences were and are worth the moral costs.

Obviously the words "public and detailed case" and "Dick Cheney" don't exactly go hand in hand. Obviously the notion that the American Presidency needs to operate secretly in many of these matters is central to the now ex-veep's political worldview. "A lot of the details are still obviously classified," he said, when pressed by Jim Lehrer to describe exactly what sort of information we gained from the "high-value" interrogations, and it's clear that he expects to be offering that answer for many years to come. But at the moment, it also seems clear that by avoiding a deep and detailed public engagement with the argument over torture, he's ensuring that his side will lose it. And based on his own accounting of the stakes involved, he ought to be willing - nay, eager - to compromise his beliefs about what information from the Bush years can and should be made public in the short term in order to win the political argument about whether the administration's policies should be continued.

For many anti-torture voices, of course, it's taken as a given that Cheney doesn't really believe what he says he believes - or at the very least, that on some level he knows that a full and fair airing of the intelligence the Bush Administration gathered from "enhanced interrogation" would not end up vindicating the policy. All of the principled talk about executive power and presidential privilege, in this view of things, is ultimately just a defense mechanism that allows Cheney - and by extension, the country - to avoid coming to grips with the depths of his wrongdoing. Maybe that's so. But I know at least some people in Washington for whom this isn't the case: People who argue, with a reasonable degree of knowledge and no self-justifying incentives, that whatever one thinks about the morality of waterboarding, the Bush Administration's interrogation policies up made a substantial difference in our ability to disrupt al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11.

Nothing that's been made public to date has left me convinced that they're right. (And even if they are right, it probably wouldn't change my judgment that the Bush Administration's broader record on detainee policy looks like a moral fiasco.)  But I'm entirely convinced that they're sincere - and I think that any sincere proponent of what the United States did to its high-value detainees should be willing to see those policies defended more fully and publicly than they've been to date. Put another way, anyone who thinks that Dick Cheney will be at least somewhat vindicated by history ought to want him vindicated now, when the vindication would actually make a difference in the policy of the United States government. And an independent commission, charged with assessment, rather than indictment, seems like as reasonable a place as any to start.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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