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by Richard B. Simon
What does Dick Cheney want?
The former Vice President made a high-profile speech Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where his wife is a board member, essentially as a refutation of President Barack Obama's speech condemning torture and making the case for closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.
The two speeches could not have been a clearer illustration of the difference in policy, tone, and attitidue toward the American people between the Bush and Obama administrations. Obama's speech was long and methodical and reasoned - typical of Obama's professorial style. His purpose was to herd members of Congress in both parties toward shutting Guantanamo.
A Senate vote Wednesday yanked funding for closing the controversial facility, largely in response to Republican arguments that it is just too dangerous to have terrorists on U.S. soil, and in our justice system. Obama made a pretty strong case that such fear is irrational: over 200 terrorists - including "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramsi Yousef - are already serving time in the U.S. prison system. No one, he said, has ever escaped from a U.S. Supermax (super-maximum security) prison.
More pointedly, Obama reminded his audience at the National Archives (chosen, apparently, for its authoritative-sounding natural reverb - as well as because it is where the Constitution is housed) that both parties last year chose candidates who abhorred torture and advocate the closing of Guantanamo.
Obama, as usual, spoke to the American people as if we were adults, capable of understanding and acting upon complex problems. Cheney's tact was a bit different. He seemed ... defensive. Despite the gymnastics of Congressional Republicans, who alternatingly abhor and embrace the policies of the Bush Administration, the national debate on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody in the War on Terror has seemed to settle on the conclusion that what the Bush Administration legalized as "enhanced interrogation techniques" amounted to torture - which is illegal, by both international and U.S. law.
Cheney has broken tradition in recent weeks to defend his administration's policies by attacking their aggressive rollback by Obama. Whether he is acting truly as a free agent, or still as the subterraneally quasi-official attack dog remains to be seen.
What is clear is that Cheney is trying to seize control of the debate, to reframe it in terms that don't cast him as a war criminal who would be liable to prosecution under international law. Because that is exactly where this has been heading.
Cheney's speech is very clearly an attempt to re-frame the torture debate as "the criminalization of policy differences" in order to escape any sort of prosecution.
Cheney first attempts to establish his credibility by asserting that he has no hidden political agenda. He was never running for office, he is out of politics, and he is simply free, as a citizen, to speak his mind. He expects us to ignore the very real threat of personal legal jeopardy - in fact, his entire argument is based on us accepting that he is in no legal jeopardy, because all his actions were legal. Cheney introduces his argument by saying:
The point is not to look backward. Now and for years to come, a lot rides on our president's understanding of the security policies that preceded him. And whatever choices he makes concerning the defense of the country, those choices should not be based on slogans and campaign rhetoric, but on a truthful telling of history.
So he is here to give us the Cheney version of "a truthful telling of history."
He gives some background on the U.S. response to terrorist incidents during Bill Clinton's tenure - culminating with the 9/11 attacks, nearly nine months into the Bush-Cheney term. "From that moment forward," he says, "instead of merely preparing to round up the suspects and count the victims after the next attack, we were determined to prevent attacks in the first place." It's a reasonable attack on the entire government response before 9/11.
He continues by describing the threat spectrum the administration saw - including "the training camps in Afghanistan and dictators like Saddam Hussein with known ties to Mideast terrorists." This is the same conflation of Hussein and al Qaeda, within the same sentence, that the administration used to lead the nation into Iraq.
"These are just a few of the problems we had on our hands," he continues. "And foremost on our minds was the prospect of the very worst coming to pass: a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction."
He then gives a personal anecdote about his experience on 9/11, being whisked to a bunker beneath a White House believed to be about to be hit by an airplane.
And he gives us an honest glimpse into the Bush White House mentality from then on: "I'll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities."
Cheney details Bush administration policies and successes, including dismantling Libya's nuclear program and breaking up the A.Q. Khan black market nuclear technology network. Then he begins his attack.
So we're left to draw one of two conclusions, and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years and of the policies necessary to protect America in the years to come.
He presents a false dilemma - either we continue all of the Bush Cheney national security policies - including torture, pre-emptive wars, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, wiretapping of American citizens without warrants - or we treat 9/11 as a "one-off event" that is indicative of no further threat.
Obviously, in Cheney's worldview, conservatives are on one side, and liberals are on the other. There is, as he will assert later, "no middle ground" in what he is carefully framing as a political debate between the two ideologies. Cheney next admits that the administration created legal framework in which intelligence operatives could interrogate detainees.
In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our administration gave intelligence officers the tools and the lawful authority they needed to gain vital information.
This seems to be an admission that the intelligence agents did not have the lawful authority "needed to gain vital information" - to use what Cheney will call "enhanced interrogation tactics" - until the administration gave it to them.
He then cites the Constitutional authority of the executive branch, as well as the Authorization of the Use of Military Force, the 2002 bill that gave the Bush Administration a blank check to do anything at all in pursuit of the terrorists:
We did not invent that authority. It's drawn from Article Two of the Constitution, and it was given specificity by Congress after 9/11 in a joint resolution authorizing all necessary and appropriate force to protect the American people.One of Cheney's goals is to spread responsibility, then, to the Congress. He then attacks the New York Times for doing journalism - for investigating and revealing Bush administration policies that violated the law - and moves directly into his defense of the interrogation practices in question:
In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists. And in a few cases, that information could be gained only through tough interrogations.He takes responsibility without actually taking responsibility:
In top-secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.
And states his core message: The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do. Cheney ironically accuses the Obama administration of selectively declassifying documents, to tar the previous Administration with memos directing the interrogations from the White House, without releasing the documents that he has requested, which he says would detail not just the interrogation practices, but the answers they yielded.
These answers, Cheney maintains, kept Americans safe. The Obama administration has not denied this - but Obama has said that there are better, more effective ways to garner information from detainees and/or suspects, which do not sacrifice America's core values in the name of expedience. Yet Cheney continues to work to frame the debate:
Over on the left wing of the president's party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists. The kind of answers they're after would be heard before a so-called truth commission. Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense and political opponents as criminals.
It's hard to imagine a worse precedent filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessor.
In Cheney's view, there is no validity in seeking to learn the truth about the Bush administration's policies. There is no valid reason for investigating whether the policies were lawful; and if not, how illegal policies such as torture were justified and legalized.
In Cheney's view, the only reason anyone would want to have a "truth commission" (which in actuality has been proposed as an alternative to criminal proceedings, or to political hearings in Congress) is to "criminalize the policy decisions" of the Bush administration.
It is reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's and Slobodan Milosevic's attacks on the legitimacy of the Iraqi court and the War Crimes Tribunal, respectively.
And at this point in the speech - and increasingly with every iteration of the root "criminal," you start to sense that this man is afraid. He is trying to kill the very idea that what they did may have been illegal - and in so doing, to try to control the Bush-Cheney administration's legacy in history, which is fast being written to include torture, and then perhaps to keep himself out of prison.
He goes on to deflect the hot light onto lawyers and intelligence operators by asserting that a truth commission would impugn their service to country.
He threatens Obama by suggesting that an investigation of the interrogation methods will lead to the American people being left unprotected:
I would advise the administration to think very carefully about the course ahead. All the zeal that has been directed at the interrogations is utterly misplaced, and staying on that path will only lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people.
It is classic Cheney: do exactly what I want you to do, or risk another attack. This was the entire core message of the (effective) 2004 Bush Cheney re-election campaign.
Cheney spends some time talking about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged master plotter of the 9/11 attacks, focusing the torture debate on him:
It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You've heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, who has also boasted about his beheading of Daniel Pearl.Cheney is basically saying it's not torture - and, anyway, we only did it to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The latter assertion is a seeming admission that, well, sure it's torture - but it's okay to use torture on guys like this who are obviously villains. It's an argument that comes up later. More interestingly, Cheney says:
In public discussion of these matters, there has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib with the top-secret program of enhanced interrogations.
At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulation and simple decency. For the harm they did to Iraqi prisoners and to America's cause, they deserved and received Army justice.
This charge mirrors the administration's own conflation of Iraq and al Qaeda. But Cheney does not appear to recall that Major General Geoffrey Miller was tasked with exporting interrogation techniques from Guantanamo to Iraq, and specifically to Abu Ghraib".
Cheney is still trying to pin Abu Ghraib on the lowest men (and women) in the chain of command - but Charles Graner and Lynndie England always maintained that they had been asked - by CIA interrogators -- to "soften up" the prisoners for interrogation. This flows directly from the "Gitmoization" of the Abu Ghraib prison - the migration of the interrogation practices which Cheney admits to having purposefully made legal from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.
This is exactly why you don't legalize torture. In theory, you can torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Osama bin Laden all you want, and not many people would complain. But once you make it legal, it spreads beyond your control.
At Abu Ghraib, innocent men who were not hardened terrorists or even al Qaeda affiliates were subjected to this treatment, because Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon sought better intelligence on the insurgency. Still, Cheney asserts that
it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib with the lawful, skillful and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained to deal with a few malevolent men."Those personnel," he continues, "were carefully chosen from within the CIA and were especially prepared to apply techniques within the boundaries of their training and the limits of the law. And then Cheney admits what we've known all along: that the Bush administration specifically sought to define the line so that "interrogation" stopped just short of torture:
Torture was never permitted. And the methods were given careful legal review before they were approved. Interrogators had authoritative guidance on the line between toughness and torture, and they knew to stay on the right side of it.Cheney goes on to impugn the motives of those who want to see the rule of law reinstated in this country, and some kind of accounting for lawless behavior.
Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.
There is no such thing, in Cheney's mind, as legitimate concern for the rule of law. Any outrage about the Bush administration's legalization of torture is "feigned" and based on a false story. Any indignation is "contrived" and all discussion of morality surrounding the mistreatment of detainees is "phony."
Perhaps he is referring to Pelosi and others who may have been briefed on, and at least tacitly approved policies such as waterboarding (though had the leaders of the minority party in Congress objected to these policies, they would have had no lever for airing or acting upon dissent; we know that such briefings were conducted under threat of prosecution - members of Congress were forbidden to discuss the meetings with anyone.)
But it is difficult to not read this as an assault on anyone who expresses outrage, indignation, or any moral qualms about the Bush administration's policies.
"I might add," Cheney continues, "that people who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about values.
He then concocts a straw man, and attacks an argument that no one has made publicly:
Intelligence officers of the United States were not trying to rough up some terrorists simply to avenge the dead of 9/11. We know the difference in this country between justice and vengeance.When Cheney says "Intelligence officers were not trying to get terrorists to confess to past killings; they were trying to prevent future killings," he appears to be responding directly to the Convention Against Torture, which states:
For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.Then he comes back to his central attack:
[T]o call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What's more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.
This is a guilt appeal (how dare you "libel" the dedicated professionals who save lives) coupled with a personal attack on Obama (for false "righteousness") that ends in the requisite fear appeal: Not only is this not torture, but we must continue to do it in the future, or we will be attacked again - and it will be all your fault.
Cheney goes on to say that Obama's attempts at political reconciliation are dangerous. He asserts that there is "no middle ground" in the War on Terrorism:
[I]n the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States; you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States.
It's Cheney's way, one hundred percent, or a nuclear attack. Moreover, any policy that falls short of the line just short of torture is a "half measure."
This is the definition of totalitarianism.
Cheney continues, attacking some perceived "political correctness" before discussing the closing of Guantanamo Bay, another policy with which he disagrees. Closing the prison camp, Cheney says, will please Europe, but it won't make Americans more safe.
He refutes the notion that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses were used as "recruitment tools" by al Qaeda, and mocks any such concern, again, as fainthearted concern about a loss of American values. Yet it has been largely Cheney allies such as Senator Lindsay Graham and General David Petraeus, who have spoken out against releasing photographic evidence of prisoner abuse, lest they provide propaganda tools for al Qaeda and inflame the international press.
In any event, Cheney is more interested in making an impression on terrorists than on our NATO allies. He argues that a debate over foreign policy - a debate which, after a national election largely repudiated his policies, he started - shows weakness to the terrorists. Therefore, of course, we must not debate whether Bush policies were legal - we must simply continue them. He asserts again that if we are wise,
Instead of idly debating which political opponents to prosecute and punish, our attention will return to where it belongs: on the continuing threat of terrorist violence and on stopping the men who are planning it.He again touts the lack of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil as evidence of the rightness of the policies, always bringing it back to this idea of criminalization:
After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, seven-and-a-half years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized. It is a record to be continued until the danger has passed.Throughout the final quarter of the speech, Cheney attacks the very idea that the interrogation policies represent a failure to adhere to America's core values. And anyway, there is nothing more American than preventing Americans from being killed. And there is nothing morally wrong with treating suspected terrorists unpleasantly:
For all that we've lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings. And when the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent nor victims.
At its core, Cheney's argument is that the interrogation policies are not torture, and that they therefore were legal. He argues that anyone who says otherwise is merely expressing phony outrage in pursuit of a political goal: the criminalization of political opponents.
We might conclude that, as he claims, he is asserting all this in service to the national debate - but he does not believe we should even have a debate. He says he wants to speak truth to the historical record - yet he opposes a truth commission to find facts objectively. He wants us to believe that he is above politics - yet Cheney does not appear to believe that there is such a thing as legitimate moral indignation or outrage. There is only cynical political posturing, self-interest, and self-righteousness.
By Cheney's own reckoning, then, we must conclude that this speech is an attempt to confuse the public's sense of the debate by claiming that it is not about legalizing criminality but about criminalizing politics. Any investigation into Bush administration interrogation policy is tantamount to criminalizing political differences, rather than legitimate inquiry into whether political leaders acted criminally, whether in the public interest or not.
In addition, by tying Democrats to a policy (Obama's) that he forcefully asserts endangers the country (i.e., lead to another terrorist attack), while asserting that no motive outside of partisan gain is even fathomable, Cheney appears to be betting his own fortunes, and those of his party, on the success of the terrorists.
Finally, by making himself a forceful and very high-profile critic of the Obama administration, Cheney is trying to cast himself as a political dissident. This will allow Cheney - and his lawyers - to argue that any pursuit of legal charges or even investigation of Cheney is the result of political persecution for his vocal criticism.
It is a pre-emptive attack against an existential threat: the threat of prosecution for war crimes.