The news today that leading Democrats, including Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi, were informed about the torture of military prisoners and allegedly didn't just acquiesce but actually approved it is not something that particularly surprises. The descent into war crimes under this administration provoked very little public Democratic anger or resistance for the years in which it was used most promiscuously. The presidential campaign of John Kerry offered only token opposition. The subject never came up in a single presidential debate in 2004. And the way in which the torture issue has subsequently been raised by Democrats bespeaks opportunism as much as principled outrage and opposition.
Pelosi's response to the accusation is the weakest. Harman's the strongest - she claims she sent a classified letter in opposition in February 2003; Bob Graham says he was not briefed on the matter and mercifully now says that there is no doubt that waterboarding is torture. Rockefeller hasn't commented. At best, it seems to me, Democratic resistance to these war crimes was anodyne.
But this, of course, does not mean that the methods were or are defensible, legal or useful. Whatever else can be said about this debate, it is not inherently partisan.
Some of the strongest resisters have come from within the military and intelligence services, and a Republican, McCain has been the most dogged critic. Moral issues as profound as this one transcend party. This is not to say that there is no difference between the parties, with the GOP shamefully defending war crimes the United States once prosecuted as such. The Democrats, for the most part, have been their usual selves on this: still in a defensive crouch against any notion that they might be soft on terror, and implicitly adopting the fallacious logic that somehow opposing torture means being soft on terror. Au contraire. Torture has weakened the West's war against barbarism by blurring the critical lines needed to win the long war, and by injecting into intelligence the falsehoods, exaggerations and lies that always come from the tortured.
With Obama, McCain, and Paul and (less assuredly) Clinton (because nothing she says can be trusted) and Huckabee (whose position seems to me moving against torture), we finally have clarity on a future ban. That's what we have to focus on now - including the bill in the Congress banning torture for CIA officials. Then we will have to go back and investigate who authorized these war crimes and who knew about and acquiesced to them. That is an arduous process. But a necessary one, if America is to regain its moral standing and strategic bearings again.
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