The more Dick Cheney defends torture, the more we Americans must end our tortured ambivalence. Either we are above using the same interrogation practices that police states use, or we are are not.
This past weekend, the former vice president said he knew about waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used by CIA personnel on terror suspects and even defended officers who went beyond authorized methods. He said they were “absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives and preventing further attacks against the United States.’’
Going further, he said it “offends the hell out of me’’ that the Obama administration has decided to investigate prisoner abuse by the CIA. He called it an “outrageous political act’’ that will demoralize the intelligence community to the point where “nobody’s going to sign up for those kinds of missions.’’
It would be easy at this juncture to demonize Cheney, who was so wrong so often in his eight years in office, most notably about the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that he and President Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That war has cost the lives of more than 4,300 American soldiers, with another 31,400 wounded, and about 100,000 documented deaths of Iraqi civilians, according to Iraqbodycount.org.
But Cheney’s role is an old, if still developing story. After all, he warned us five days after Sept. 11 that our government would work on the “dark side.’’ He told the late Tim Russert, “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.’’ A majority of Americans thought Cheney was right. Despite the false pretenses for war and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses that were exposed in the spring of 2004, Bush and Cheney were reelected.
Now, as Cheney continues to defend the dark side - even without conclusive proof that waterboarding coughed up critical intelligence - he is daring Americans to come out of the shadows to demand a bright light on interrogation and prisoner-treatment practices that render us hypocrites on human rights. To some degree, Attorney General Eric Holder is attempting this with his probe. But it appears that the inquiry will be limited to any CIA officers who went beyond legally authorized methods.
That is not enough. President Obama has sought to avoid controversy - and avoid demoralizing the CIA - by saying he wants to look forward, not backward. But these last eight years have revealed too many brutal abuses to write them off as only the actions of a few rogues.
We are at the point where nothing less than full congressional hearings, or a full Justice Department investigation, will let us know how high the rot started and how deep it went.
The rot in our national morality is evident in a June poll by the Associated Press, which found that 52 percent of Americans said torture was sometimes or often justified to obtain information from terror suspects. An April CNN poll found that even though 60 percent of Americans thought harsh techniques including waterboarding constituted torture, 50 percent approved of them. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll was almost evenly split between Americans who say we should never use torture (49 percent) and should use torture in some cases (48 percent).
Whether it is because of the politics of fear that defined the Bush-Cheney years, the recession engulfing the Obama administration, or simply an indifference to foreigners languishing in jail, Americans have displayed scant curiosity about the dark side. A May McClatchy poll found Americans to be almost evenly split on having a “bipartisan blue-chip commission’’ on interrogations, and the CNN poll found nearly two-thirds disapproving of either a congressional investigation or independent panel.
This is a level of apathy, even civic debasement that makes it no wonder Cheney can spout off despite leaving America in a disgraceful place. He feels empowered to defend the dark side, because we have yet to shine a light.