8 a.m. ET: It's too early to know how history will judge the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques, and the Obama administration's decision to make the details public. But it is clear, one week after the White House sparked a partisan fight by releasing Bush-era legal memos, that one side is on offense and one is on defense.
Democrats want this conversation to be about a) whether these interrogation policies were legal, and b) whether the Bush administration officials who approved them should face prosecution. Republicans want the conversation to be about a) whether tough interrogations helped obtain information that made the country safer, and b) whether Democrats knew about the policies at the time and raised no real objections.
So far, Republicans are winning the message fight. Nancy Pelosi did not actually contradict herself yesterday -- she said she was briefed in 2002 that waterboarding had been approved for use, not that it actually had been used -- but the GOP spun her comments so hard that Democrats spent much of the day on the defensive. Instead of focusing on what was legally and morally right, much of Thursday's chatter was about parsing what Pelosi did or didn't hear at a seven-year-old briefing. And Democrats have been too busy arguing amongst themselves to develop a coordinated message, particularly on how to proceed going forward.
By Thursday night, Obama seemed to have cleared up any confusion about where he stands on forming a so-called "truth commission" to probe Bush-era misdeeds. Obama is against the idea, he "forcefully affirmed" to Hill leaders meeting at the White House. Harry Reid reportedly sided with the president, but Pelosi held out, and still wants such a commission. The divide guarantees that Democratic disunity will remain front and center, again obscuring the larger discussion of what the Bush administration actually did.
The party was similarly split over the move that sparked the current controversy -- the Justice Department's release last week of four Bush administration legal memos outlining and justifying harsh interrogation techniques. That decision, the Washington Post reports, came after a fierce debate within the White House. (An aside: Read the Post's account of the fateful meeting in Rahm Emanuel's office, which depicts Obama as soliciting opinions on both sides of the issue before making a firm decision. Then read this piece, about the storylines the White House wants to promote in advance of the 100-day milestone.)
Yet another internal administration dispute is now bubbling to the surface, this one over the forthcoming release of photos showing alleged abuse at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robert Gates said Thursday he's worried about a "backlash in the Middle East" over the photos, but the White House has decided to release them anyway in response to an ACLU effort to force the issue in court.
Even if Democrats are having problems with the tactics of the interrogation policy fight, it's worth remembering that they probably got the strategy right. Past polling suggests that while the public is divided on these issues, a majority of the public does believe a) that waterboarding constitutes "torture"; b) that the United States should not permit torture; and c) that the Bush administration's actions on this front should be investigated. All that context matters, suggesting that in the long term, Obama and his fellow Democrats may well be doing the right thing here. But in the short-term, they'd probably prefer to just talk about something else.
April 24, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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