If you’re looking for a spokesman for torture – that is, someone who will happily go in front of a television camera and earnestly defend a policy of deliberately inflicting pain upon a prisoner for the purposes of extracting information – you can’t do better than Dick Cheney. You also can’t do worse.
I watched Cheney sit down with Fox News’ Bret Baier Wednesday night to offer his response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s brutal, incompetent and ineffective torture program. At various points my blood ran cold watching the former vice president wave away the program’s worst abuses as meaningless (or justified) as he growled and sneered his way through something approximating a justification for his and his administration’s behavior.
Despite not having actually read the report – “I’ve seen part of it, I read summaries of it” – Cheney said it was “full of crap” and argued his case for why the Bush administration was right to torture detainees. It boiled down to two basic arguments: the lawyers said it was legal, and it was an effective program. Both arguments are themselves full of crap, insomuch as they function more as exonerations of Cheney et al. than as justifications for the program.
“People have been very concerned about waterboarding, calling it torture,” Cheney said. “First of all it was not deemed torture by the lawyers, and secondly it worked.” The lawyers, in this case, were Bush administration officials who dreamed up legal rationales for the course of action the White House wanted to take. President Bush signed a memorandum in February 2002 explaining that the United States would not be bound by the Geneva Conventions in prosecuting the endless war against al-Qaida. As the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen wrote in 2012, the policies that flowed from that memo’s “perversion of law and logic,” including the torture program, “were merely evidence of the grinding gears of bureaucracy trying to justify itself.”
The core legal team that crafted the rationale for every abuse of power committed in the name of the war on terror was assembled by Cheney, who also squashed dissent and ensured that Bush saw only what he wanted Bush to see. So when Cheney argues that lawyers approved the torture program, what he means is that the lawyers he tasked with finding ways to make it “legal” did their jobs.
As for whether the torture “worked,” Cheney has long maintained that information extracted from tortured detainees helped prevent attacks and save lives. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report says otherwise, and it has a lot of company. “Reports from the Department of Justice, Senate Armed Services Committee, and the C.I.A.’s Inspector General … completely discredit the Bush administration’s long-standing claims that torture prevented attacks against America and helped capture high value terrorist targets,” notes Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress.
The reason Cheney keeps making this argument is that it’s the only card he can play to claim any sort of moral justification for abandoning long-standing international norms on torture and the treatment of detainees. “We did what we had to do” is a better argument than “we did it because we could.” It also helps fend off darker questions about whether the Bush administration embarked on a program of “enhanced interrogation” to manufacture the sort of intelligence it needed to bolster its broader foreign policy agenda.
Cheney also indulged in a bit of classic either/or misdirection to make it seem like torture was a logical and necessary tactic. “We've got Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was the mastermind of 9/11, who has killed 3,000 Americans,” Cheney said. “He is in our possession. We know he's the architect. What are we supposed to do, kiss him on both cheeks and please, please tell us what you know? Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done.” So it’s a choice between waterboarding a detainee and kissing him on the cheeks? If only there were some middle ground that didn’t require him to destroy the country’s credibility on the human rights issues.
The whole thing fell apart, though, when Baier asked Cheney about Gul Rahman, the detainee who died in a CIA “black site” in Afghanistan in 2002 after being chained half-naked to the floor of a freezing room and left overnight. “Three thousand Americans died on 9/11 because of what these guys did,” Cheney said in response. “And I have no sympathy for them. I don't know the specific details, I'm sure there were instances cited in the report, I haven't read the report.” That’s an interesting answer, partly because it shows how utterly incurious Cheney is when it comes to the failures of the torture program, but also because it serves to highlight just how the Bush administration’s justifications for the program can turn on a dime.
Back in 2004, when the memos authorizing the torture program were first leaked to the press, the Bush administration insisted that nobody was being tortured, that existing laws were being observed, that “it has abided by international conventions barring torture, and that detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere have been treated humanely.” That was a lie. So the goalposts were moved. Marc Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for Bush, wrote in his 2010 book that no one was “tortured,” maybe a few people were roughed up, but no “deaths in custody took place in the C.I.A. interrogation program.” That, also, was a lie. Now Cheney, confronted with the documentation of a detainee dying in CIA custody, falls back to an eye-for-an-eye justification.
It’s just a gigantic pile of deceit and obfuscation, a morass of ever-changing rationales for an illegal and amoral policy. Cheney is an excellent spokesman for this cause, and that’s what makes him so terrifying.