Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard is reporting that the CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator has rejected Cheney’s request to declassify documents Cheney insists prove that torture worked. As the CIA explained in what is an apparently leaked excerpt from their letter to Cheney:
In researching the information in question, we have discovered that it is currently the subject of pending FOIA litigation (Bloche v. Department of Defense, Amnesty International v. Central Intelligence Agency). Therefore, the document is excluded from Mandatory Declassification Review.
Essentially, the CIA’s response is that the form of Cheney’s request is improper – though they are not excluding it’s release by other means. Though the Obama administration could have reached out and helped out Cheney by intervening and (technically independent of Cheney’s request) releasing the documents, they chose not to at this time. This is what is actually going on behind the blaring headlines: White House Snubs Cheny!
In requesting these documents be released, Cheney was echoing Mark Danner, a journalist for the New York Review of Books who published the leaked Red Cross memos that documented the torture conducted by the Bush administration. Danner explained why we needed to declassify any relevant documents – even if they proved torture worked:
Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.
Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…
The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.
This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture. By all accounts, it is likely that the intelligence harvest that can be attributed directly to the “alternative set of procedures” is meager. But whatever information might have been gained, it must be assessed and then judged against the great costs, legal, moral, political, incurred in producing it. Torture’s harvest, whatever it may truly be, is very unlikely to have outweighed those costs.
As Dawn Johnsen, who Obama has appointed to head the office that under Bush authorized torture, wrote for Slate:
Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.
All of this demonstrates why Obama must release these memos – for only with full disclosure, with the Bush torture program subjected to the only disinfectant a democracy has – the sunlight of public opinion and inspection – only then can we come to a consensus on torture. This is the inevitable logical end of Obama’s stated positions. And there is reason to suspect this is still the plan. Those who have reviewed these documents (aside from Cheney) have said they do not prove what Cheney insists they do. As Stephen Bradbury, the compliant head of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel in 2005 who replaced the right-wing but independent Jack Goldsmith, concluded in a still classified memo (which seems to be referencing the memos in question):
[I]t is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks…
So – if these memos don’t support the Cheney position – or offer only qualified support for it – why hasn’t Obama called Cheney’s bluff and just released them? Musn’t he be hiding something?
The one thing I have learned paying attention to Obama over these past few years is that it is often easiest to figure out what he means by listening to what he says. Obama has a way of setting a goal – then compromising, pushing deadlines off, hedging, keeping his mouth shut, and moving steadily forward – all while his opponents shriek and the media analyzes every small signal for portents of what is to come – until everyone misses the story and Obama’s goal is accomplished. This is the story of how Obama beat Hillary and McCain and of how the stimulus was passed.
On the issue of torture, Obama has been clear. He has ended the practice. He wishes to move on – but he does not wish to sweep the crimes of the Bush administration under the rug. He cannot appear eager to prosecute anyone – and he doesn’t seem to be. But he realizes that in a liberal democracy such as ours, there must be accountability. What is required is a balancing act – as he tackles the essentially political task of achieving a national consensus on the issue that will survive in the aftermath of the next crisis.
For Cheney, the political logic is also clear. He believes a crisis requires a strong executive empowered to do whatever is necessary. In defending this belief in the way he is, Cheney is setting Obama up to be politically kneecapped in the immediate aftermath of the next attack. Cheney is preemptively blaming Obama for the next significant terrorist attack – and preemptively politicizing the aftermath of that attack, preparing the ground for a resurgence of the Cheney model of the executive (which is in essence an elected tyrant). This is a truly dangerous game Cheney is playing.
Obama is struggling with how to counter this. He knows it is likely that America will be attacked in his first year in office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were tested in this way in the beginning of their presidencies. Obama must demonstrate that he is not going too far too fast in pushing back the Cheney model – lest that push be blamed for the next attack as Cheney wants it to be. Yet the Bush-Cheney policies are being legally challenged on every front – and even to delay rolling them back, Obama must defend them. What Obama needs is a gradual, thoughtful, public process.
My suspicion is that Obama will let Cheney continue to promise more openness and accountability. Cheney has already promised to testify before Congress; he is pressuring for the release of classified documents; he is making his case in the public arena. Cheney’s insistence on fighting this out in public will give Obama cover to convene a truth commission – perhaps Cheney himself may even call for one. This strategy would effectively deal with the very real threat that Cheney’s preemptive politicization of the next attack poses to the country and to the presidency.
And it means the photos just held back must be released; it means we must get to the bottom of what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it; it means we must figure out what the well-timed leaks about Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi were meant to accomplish; it means we must know how effective torture was or was not; it means we must have a truth commission.
[Image by the World Economic Forum licensed under Creative Commons.]