His behavior since the Bush administration exited office has been equally as disdainful as Al Gore's global warming fanaticism and former President Carter's frequent critiques of American foreign policy. Such harsh criticism is entirely unbecoming of a man who held the second-highest office in the country for eight years. As President Bush noted, President Obama deserves the former administration's silence and respect.
I genuinely believe that President Bush acted in good faith in ordering and approving these complained-of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the Obama administration has outlawed. Bush was unflinching in his determination that the U.S. mainland would not be attacked again while he was in office, and for his success in preventing further attacks, he deserves great credit.
But Condoleeza Rice's recent justification, caught on candid camera at Stanford University, that "enhanced interrogation techniques" weren't torture because the president told them so tells me plenty about the grandoise conception of wartime executive power that many in the administration actually believed that the president possessed.
If this was feudal England or modern-day Russia, I suppose this explanation would be perfectly acceptable. However, in a system of divided government whereby the president does not make nor interpret the law, and where the United States is a party to myriad treaties (such as the International Convention Against Torture, signed in 1988) that I am sure President Bush never heard of until he won the election, that's not good enough. The president can ask the Justice Department for legal advice, but the "because I said so" statement does not good law make.
I think a very good case can be made that things like sleep deprivation, stress positions and loud music aren't even in the ballpark of the internationally accepted definition of "torture." But the Bush administration rarely seemed to concern itself with winning an argument based on what the law actually says.
What also bothers me about the conservative case in this regard is that I believe opinion leaders on the right -- mainly led in 2009 by Cheney and Rush Limbaugh -- present the torture debate as a false choice to the American people.
This is a zero-sum game -- a replication of the Bush Doctrine, circa 2002: You're either with us, or with the terrorists -- and Cheney, Limbaugh, Kristol, et al. have set the terms of the game for public discourse. If the new administration does not play by their rules, or wishes to roll back some of the Bush/Cheney policies, they are by definition weak on terror.
I might actually buy Cheney's argument if he could answer the following questions:
1. What "traditional" interrogation techniques were used that did not work?
2. What "enhanced" interrogation techniques were used that did in fact work?
3. What specific information was gleaned as a result of such techniques?
Unfortunately, the former vice-president and his enablers insist that questions 1 and 3 are of such vital importance to national security that the public is not entitled to answers.
Sorry, that's not good enough.
The American people deserve to know how exactly these enhanced interrogation techniques have worked. They deserve to know why it is that the "traditional" methods have not. This is a governmental system founded on transparency, and the American people are entitled to it.
This shadowy "because I said so" justification for virtually every matter concerning national security is in no way inherently conservative or patriotic.
How can the former vice-president expect me to buy this story without specifics?
I'm reminded of a comment from Steve Martin's character in the late-90s remake of "Sgt. Bilko: "What are we in, Russia?"
However, perhaps the most disturbing element of this debate came from an op-ed penned by Col. Lawrence Wilkinson, one of the leaders of Colin Powell's State Department during the Bush administration's first term:
Wilkinson said he learned that long before the Justice Department rendered any opinion about the legality of the interrogation methods, the administration was utilizing them in 2002 not to prevent another terrorist attack (the "ticking time bomb" scenario that Cheney so often cites), but rather to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
The full text of Wilkinson's remarks can be found here.
This effort was focused on one detainee in particular -- Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi -- who was waterboarded in Egypt, and as a result, gave up supposedly valuable information to his interrogators regarding a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Al-Libi's disturbing backstory can be found here.
If you think waterboarding is a fail-safe, fool-proof way to interrogate detainees in the interest of national security, do yourself a favor and click on that link.
If you've taken the time to do that, you'll notice that the information linking the two and provided by al-Libi during his interrogations actually turned out to be false. Al-Libi was the consensus star detainee cited by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003. The story of al-Libi proves that, number one, the Bush administration was waterboarding detainees not to prevent another terrorist attack, but rather to establish some sort of link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Second, it proves that, as Sen. McCain has so often noted, detainees suffering through such interrogations will say anything to make the interrogators stop.
In his book, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain said that when he was being tortured in the Hanoi Hilton, and was pressed for the names of American squadron leaders, he gave his interrogators the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line.
This statement -- from a man who, unlike anyone in the Bush administration, actually endured such interrogations -- shows that such techniques can easily lead to inherently unreliable information.
The summation of my remarks is this: Dick Cheney is not entitled to be taken at his word. This is a debate of vital national importance, and those purporting to set its terms must show their cards. No leader -- Republican or Democrat -- during any time -- war or peace -- deserves such blind deference from the American people.