Was Cheney Proven Right?

Scouring the CIA documents, pundits find little evidence to support the ex-Vice President's boasts at the Weekly Standard

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Within hours of the release of CIA documents last night, Dick Cheney declared victory. In a note to the Weekly Standard, he hailed the arrival of what he has long invoked against his opponents: proof that enhanced interrogations worked to thwart terrorist plots.

Was he right? The documents--despite much hype and expectation--afford no direct proof to pundits that torture was essential or instrumental in gaining essential intelligence. Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent, one of Cheney's harshest critics, offers the definitive explication:

Cheney's public account of these documents have conflated the difference between information acquired from detainees, which the documents present, and information acquired from detainees through the enhanced interrogation program, which they don't.

Cheney's self-defense is understandable, considering that many left-leaning commentators are hoping that an investigation will land at his doorstep. Yet Cheney's traditional defenders maintain that harsh interrogations did extract valuable information, but that the documents hedged their language. Ace of Spades outlines this position best:

The document is written with an eye to politics -- the authors do not want to stick a thumb in the eye of their Democratic clients...While hedging and claiming they can't know with 100% certainty how much intelligence is directly attributable to EITs, there doesn't seem to be much question that EITs loosened the tongues of the three waterboarded terrorists.

Why do most pundits see this as a Cheney defeat?

  • Changed His Wording, argues Justin Elliot in the Talking Points Memo. Elliot pointed out that Cheney didn't in fact assert that warterboarding and harsh interrogation had extracted key intelligence. He claimed the people who  gave key intelligence were subjected to harsh interrogation. "The distinction amounts to a walk back of Cheney's position all along -- that interrogators culled valuable intel using the techniques."
  • Stop Cutting Him Slack, says Greg Sargent at the Plum Line. The media has been too equivocal on the lack of proof in what were supposed to be blockbuster documents, he says. "While Cheney's original assertions that the docs would prove torture worked garnered reams of stand-alone print and TV coverage, the fact that the docs themselves don't actually prove Cheney's claims was either not covered at all, buried deep in stories, or described in highly hedged language."
  • No Smoking Gun, says Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo. "The memos, from 2004 and 2005, do say that some detainees, particularly Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, gave up useful information during debriefing sessions. But nowhere do they suggest that that information was gleaned through torture."
  • Time to Stop Rationalizing, says Will at the League of Ordinary Gentleman. "First, we were told that torture was necessary to address an existential threat. Next, it was the dreaded "ticking time bomb." Finally, Cheney and his surrogates assured us that torture had produced "actionable intelligence." If these memos can't even establish that torture and torture alone is necessary to clear this latest hurdle, isn't it time to acknowledge that it simply wasn't worth it?"
  • Last Stand for Cheney, says Craig Crawford at CQ Politics. Without Bush around to "commute any sentences," an investigation into malpractice may ultimately open up Cheney's whole unsavory record to prosecution, Crawford says. "Because these independent probes have a way of expanding, anything else on the former vice president's record -- like those allegations that he launched assassination squads -- could come into focus."
  • Cheney Praises Insubordination, says Michael Scherer in an excellent analysis of three remarkable facts about Cheney's note at Time. "The third surprise in Cheney's statement is the blanket praise he offers to CIA employees and contractors, even, apparently, those who violated the Bush Administration's own guidance."
  • Redactions Implicate the VP, says Scott Horton at Harper's. "At several points, redactions begin just when the discussion is headed toward the supervision or direction of the program and context suggests that some figure far up the Washington food chain is intervening...there's little doubt that Dick Cheney and his staff were pushing the process from behind the scenes."

Is there a point at which Cheney could be proven wrong? As the Atlantic's own Conor Clarke has pointed out in the interminable "death panels" argument, as long as the debate stays open, it will seem that Cheney's claim has an equal claim to rational footing.

UPDATE: Atlantic Wire colleague Justin Miller cites one pundit who found the evidence in the CIA documents supportive of Cheney. Stephen F. Hayes, Cheney's biographer and the one who published the ex-VP's response last night, finds proof in the "prolific" cooperation of Khalid Shaykh Muhammed after waterboarding. He concludes

Reasonable people can – and do – disagree about the morality of using EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques]. But only the most accomplished resister could continue to claim that they were not effective.
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