From the president, a tortured answer on torture

Asked about his vice president's views on the treatment of detainees, the president says little and a lot all at once.

Published November 7, 2005 9:25PM (EST)

We told you earlier that George W. Bush, visiting Panama today, once again refused to answer a question about the Valerie Plame case. But the Plame question was only one of two the president was asked about doings back home. And he didn't really answer the other one, either.

The second question concerned torture. As Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, as the Iraq death toll mounted, as gas prices rose and his top aide was indicted, Dick Cheney has been pretty near invisible. The Washington Post offers one reason why: The vice president has been busy waging "an intense and largely unpublicized campaign" to prevent the imposition of any limits on how the military, or at least the CIA, treats detainees in U.S. custody. Cheney's unyielding approach on the question of torture puts him at odds with everyone from Condoleezza Rice to John McCain -- and that's just on the Republican side of the equation.

The president was asked today whether he sided with Cheney. His answer: "Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people." To be fair, Bush did elaborate. He said that the executive branch and the legislative branch both have an obligation to protect the American people, and he insisted that "anything we do to that effort, to that end, in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law." Then he added: "We do not torture."

Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of "law" is. And "torture," too. The administration's lawyers have argued that the president has infinite authority during wartime. Read in that light, Bush's comments today are a sort of tautology: "Anything we do ... is within the law" because "anything we do ... is within the law." As for torture? As former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee taught us in a legal memorandum the Justice Department has since repudiated, at least officially, the word "torture" can be defined so narrowly that almost nothing comes within its meaning.

So what did Bush really mean today? A clue can probably be found in what he said next. Apparently referring to Cheney's efforts to fight off a ban on torture that passed the Senate by a 90-9 vote, Bush said that his administration is "working with Congress to make sure as we go forward, we make it possible -- more possible -- to do our job."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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