Commentary: What if Cheney is right?
Blogger Alert: I have a written a column in defense of Dick Cheney. I know how upsetting this will be to some Cheney critics, and I count myself as one, who think -- in respectful paraphrase of what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman -- that everything he says is a lie. Yet I have to wonder if what he is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works.
In some sense, this is an arcane point since the U.S. insists it will not torture anymore -- not that, the Bush people quickly add, it ever did. Torture is a moral abomination, and President Obama is right to restate American opposition to it. But where I reserve a soupcon of doubt is over the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques actually work. That they do not is a matter of absolute conviction among those on the political left, who seem to think that suspected terrorists were tortured by the CIA just for the hell of it.
Cheney, though, is adamant that the very measures that are now deemed illegal did work and that, furthermore, doing away with them has made the country less safe. Cheney said this most recently last Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Those policies were responsible for saving lives," he told Bob Schieffer. In effect, Cheney poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?
Cheney is a one-man credibility gap. In the past, he has said, "We know they (the Iraqis) have biological and chemical weapons," when it turned out we knew nothing of the sort. He insisted that "the evidence is overwhelming" that al-Qaeda had been in high-level contact with Saddam Hussein's regime when the "evidence" was virtually nonexistent. And he repeatedly asserted that Iraq had a menacing nuclear weapons program. As a used car dealer, he would have no return customers.
Still, every dog has his day and Cheney is barking up a storm on the efficacy of what can colloquially be called torture. He says he knows of two CIA memos that support his contention that the harsh interrogation methods worked and that many lives were saved. "That's what's in those memos," he told Schieffer. They talk "specifically about different attack planning that was under way and how it was stopped."
Cheney says he once had the memos in his files and has since asked that they be released. He's got a point.
If Cheney is right, then let the debate begin: What to do about enhanced interrogation methods? Should they be banned across the board, always and forever? Can we talk about what is, and not just what ought to be?
In a similar vein, can we also find out what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it? If she did indeed know about waterboarding back in 2003, that would hardly make her a war criminal. But if she knew and insists otherwise, that would make her one those people who will not acknowledge that the immediate post-9/11 atmosphere allowed for methods that now seem abhorrent.
Back in my college days, there was much late-night discussion about the "free man" -- not politically free, mind you, but free of bourgeois cultural restraints. In political terms, Cheney has been a free man ever since he eschewed any presidential ambitions. He became the most impolitic of politicians and continues in that role, taking neither a vow of penitence nor a vow of silence in his vice presidential afterlife. He says the issues are too important for him to be, as is traditional, mum.
He is right about that. The run-up to the disastrous Iraq War was notable for its smothering lack of debate. That ill served us then and it would ill serve us now if people who know something about the utility, not to mention morality, of enhanced interrogation techniques keep their mouths shut. The Obama administration ought to call Cheney's bluff, if it is that, and release the memos. If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, this could be Cheney's time.