Why did Cheney turn open-government advocate?

The former vice president wants memos about the results of CIA interrogation methods released, but he has his own history of selective declassification.

Published April 21, 2009 4:15PM (EDT)

In his recent interview with Sean Hannity, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the Obama administration of selective declassification in the release of the Office of Legal Counsel memos that outlined the Bush administration's legal justifications for CIA interrogation methods including waterboarding. And he acknowledged that he's turned transparency advocate, calling on the CIA to declassify additional memos he believes bolster his case in support of those methods.

"One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity," Cheney said. "I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained."

Unless some vital matter of national security is involved, there's no reason to oppose the declassification Cheney has asked for. Though it's clear that President Obama has no intention of bringing back waterboarding or any of the other now-banned techniques described in the OLC memos, there's still public debate over the issue, and in that situation it's always good to have as much information as possible. Besides, at the very least the background of the documents Cheney described will be interesting: Who prepared them? With what evidence? Do they counter at all the very strong case that torture doesn't work? And finally, is the information contained in them even all that different from what people like Cheney are citing already?

Those questions are especially relevant because of the man who's asking for the memos' release. While Cheney's accusing the Obama administration of releasing information selectively, it's worth remembering that he has his own, well-documented, history of declassifying intelligence information for political reasons.

In July 2003, when the Bush administration's pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Niger were coming under fire, Cheney moved to declassify and release intelligence in a selective fashion, feeding reporters an incomplete and inaccurate picture. This was revealed during the prosecution of his former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Here's how David Corn described Cheney's actions in a 2007 article for The Nation:

Cheney directed Libby to leak selective portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMDs to Judith Miller at a private breakfast meeting at the St. Regis Hotel on July 8, 2003. Cheney even went to Bush to have the President declassify the NIE for this private leak. This act of automatic executive declassification (known only to Bush, Cheney and Libby) was unprecedented, as Libby later told the grand jury. Rather than make the full NIE available to all the media, Cheney and Libby decided to share pieces that backed the Administration's use of the Niger charge with a journalist who had reported stories supporting the Administration's contention that Saddam's Iraq was a storehouse of WMDs. They did not tell Miller that the NIE contained dissents on Niger and other WMD issues or that Cheney and Libby had recently received memos from the CIA indicating that the Niger intelligence had been spotty.

Some information about the efficacy, or lack thereof, of the CIA's methods has already been released, in the OLC memos no less. A point in Cheney's favor is that the discussion of what was allegedly obtained through techniques like waterboarding from al-Qaida members like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is largely redacted. But a footnote in one of the memos, a May 30, 2005 missive from the OLC's Steven Bradbury, remains, though it too has been partially redacted. In it, Bradbury describes a report from the CIA's inspector general that casts doubts about the methods' effectiveness, writing:

This is not to say that the interrogation program has worked perfectly. According to the IG Report, the CIA, at least initially, could not always distinguish detainees who had information but were successfully resisting interrogation from those who did not actually have information. On at least one occasion, this may have resulted in what might be deemed in retrospect to have been the unnecessary use of enhanced techniques. On that occasion, although the on-scene interrogation team judged Zubaydah to be compliant, elements within CIA headquarters still believed he was withholding information.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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