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
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
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
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.