In appearing in television and print media over the course of the past month, former vice president Richard Cheney has criticized the Obama Administration by claiming that its rejection of his policies is making the country more vulnerable to attacks. In so doing, he is also defending the Bush legacy from the criticism that it instigated and perpetuated shameful torture techniques. But his insistence on reviewing memos he claims will prove that "enhanced interrogation techniques" like waterboarding saved thousands of American lives may not be wise for the country and even for his political purposes. Let me explain.
Once these memos are declassified, Congress, the Justice Department and the public will focus on whether the torture was necessary to save American lives that would otherwise have been lost to a terror attack. This will add fuel to the debate about whether the torture was illegal, unnecessary, and/or counterproductive.
Whether or not the enhanced techniques saved lives can only be a matter of judgment and cannot be proved in any conclusive way. For example, there is no way of proving that information gained by water boarding was the only way of gaining that information. Mr. Cheney's contention that he was "convinced" that lives were saved by torture and would not have also been saved by conventional interrogation methods, is sheer conjecture. Remember that he was also "convinced" -- in error -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was in league with al Qaeda.
Once the memos are released and read, the firestorm will erupt, totally blocking out whatever good effect Mr. Cheney was trying to achieve. Immediate questions will be asked as to were there other less brutal ways of gaining the information, or whether the use of these techniques caused collateral damage to US interests by recruiting more terrorists and putting our service men and women at greater risk of being tortured. On one side, there will be those who believe that the enhanced interrogation techniques were illegal torture and who want to punish those officials such as Mr. Cheney who gave the orders. On the other side, any such action would provoke angry resistance from those who would still be convinced, like Mr. Cheney, that these methods were both legal and, as he stated to Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" last Sunday, "an honorable approach."
President Obama has prudently avoided polarizing the nation with this potential firestorm because, very likely, it would merely draw attention and energy away from his creative programs while not accomplishing anything fundamental. The Obama administration has long since stopped these programs and is determining how we should treat prisoners according to law and our values. I agree with the President's strategy. We can write the final paragraph to this inflammatory and potentially destabilizing chapter in our history by assuming that whatever the truth about the use of these techniques, the Bush administration, shocked by 9/11, believed they were essential to protect Americans. I think it wise to leave it at that.
Posted by: g_higgs | May 13, 2009 2:21 PM
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