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Cheney's Desperate Defense

By Dan Froomkin
3:00 PM ET, 05/22/2009


Cheney at AEI. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

Former vice president Dick Cheney's snarling, duplicitous speech contrasting Bush and Obama administration counter-terrorism policies yesterday is best seen in the context of his understandably strong desire to avoid investigation or prosecution in the near future -- and ignominy in the history books.

While his speech is primarily being touted as a ferocious attack on President Obama -- and it certainly was that -- what Cheney is really doing is playing defense.

Running through his remarks were several familiar themes: That investigating what really happened during the past eight years is tantamount to prosecution, that criminalizing political behavior would be a terrible precedent, and that the Bush administration had absolutely nothing to do with the kind of abuse illustrated by the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib prison.

That final point is really key. For five years, ever since the photos became public, Bush officials have been engaged in a concerted disinformation campaign aimed at denying that White House policy was in any way responsible for the widespread abuse of detainees.

I describe new evidence of that disinformation campaign in an article on NiemanWatchdog.org today. One of the torture memos released last month proves how baldly then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was lying in June 2004, as he tried to distance the administration from what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The latest iteration of the campaign has been Cheney's relentless focus on debating the appropriateness and efficacy of the techniques used on "high-value" detainees at CIA secret prisons. Cheney realizes that even if he loses this argument, as far as the American public is concerned, it's a close call.

To avoid more scrutiny, it's essential that he keep distancing the administration from the kind of abuse that is universally considered indefensible.

Indeed, Cheney said yesterday: "In public discussion of these matters, there has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib prison with the top secret program of enhanced interrogations. At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency. For the harm they did, to Iraqi prisoners and to America's cause, they deserved and received Army justice. And it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib with the lawful, skillful, and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained to deal with a few malevolent men."

The campaign has been so effective that there's only been limited public awareness of the mounting evidence -- including a bipartisan report from the Senate Armed Service Committee -- definitively linking decisions made by Bush and Cheney not just to the torture at the CIA's hands, but to the pervasive, inhumane treatment of detainees – many of whom were utterly innocent -- at prison facilities such as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo.

The photographs that Obama recently decided not to release would have called renewed attention to the pervasiveness of abuse -- one reason Cheney was obviously delighted with that decision. (He called it "wise" yesterday.)

But even more so, the truth would come out in a thorough official investigation -- which is why Cheney is so opposed to one. He spoke contemptuously yesterday of a "so-called 'Truth Commission.'"

One other thing about Cheney's speech: He has yet to offer up any verifiable evidence that even a single life was saved through any of the administration's extreme tactics, including torture and warrantless surveillance. Nevertheless, he insisted yesterday that the "intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."

Hundreds of thousands? Is Cheney now explicitly suggesting that torture averted a nuclear attack? That would be a first, even for him. Call it the return of the imaginary mushroom cloud.

Here's how you cover Cheney! Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Former Vice President Dick Cheney's defense Thursday of the Bush administration's policies for interrogating suspected terrorists contained omissions, exaggerations and misstatements."

Among them: "Cheney said that 'the key to any strategy is accurate intelligence,' but the Bush administration ignored warnings from experts in the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, the Department of Energy and other agencies, and used false or exaggerated intelligence supplied by Iraqi exile groups and others to help make its case for the 2003 invasion."

And "Cheney said that only 'ruthless enemies of this country' were detained by U.S. operatives overseas and taken to secret U.S. prisons.

"A 2008 McClatchy investigation, however, found that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees captured in 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan and Pakistan were innocent citizens or low-level fighters of little intelligence value who were turned over to American officials for money or because of personal or political rivalries.

"In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Oct. 5, 2005, that the Bush administration had admitted to her that it had mistakenly abducted a German citizen, Khaled Masri, from Macedonia in January 2004.

"Masri reportedly was flown to a secret prison in Afghanistan, where he allegedly was abused while being interrogated. He was released in May 2004 and dumped on a remote road in Albania.

"In January 2007, the German government issued arrest warrants for 13 alleged CIA operatives on charges of kidnapping Masri."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate that Cheney "built a case on straw men, red herrings, and lies."

For example: "Cheney ... dismissed the idea—hardly Obama's alone—that the interrogation policies and the detention operations at Guantanamo have served as a 'recruitment tool' for al-Qaida and other terrorists. This claim, he said, 'excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrain from the Left: We brought it on ourselves.'

"This is nonsense on a few levels. Nobody is claiming that Osama Bin Laden and his crew would go away if we treated prisoners more nicely. However, it is indisputable that the reports of torture, the photos from Abu Ghraib, and the legal limbo at Guantanamo have galvanized al-Qaida's recruitment campaigns. Everyone acknowledges this, hardly just 'the Left.' It's why many Republicans lamented the news stories and the photographs—because they might help the enemy."

Joe Klein writes for Time: "From the very first--the notion that those who oppose his policies saw 9/11 as a 'one-off'--Cheney proceeded to mischaracterize, oversimplify and distort the views of those who saw his policies as extreme and unconstitutional, to say nothing of the views of the current Administration. This is the habit of demagogues. Cheney's snarling performance was revelatory and valuable: it showed exactly the sort of man Cheney is, and the sort of advice he gave, when his location was disclosed. I hope he continues to speak out. We need his voice to remind us what we've happily escaped."

Joe Conason writes for Salon: "Beyond the distortions and the lies, there was one passage in Cheney's speech that underlined the authoritarian character of the former vice president and his hosts. Not only must we not reverse the policies of the previous administration, but according to him, we should not even debate them -- because the merest discussion of the troubling issues raised by the war on terrorism only encourages the enemy."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It was not Cheney's logic but his prodigious anger that was on display yesterday....

"Cheney used the word 'attack' 19 times, 'danger' and 'threat' six times apiece, and 9/11 an impressive 27 times. It was as if all the angry thoughts edited out of his speeches by Bush aides over eight years were finally free to tumble forth. He railed about 'contrived indignation and phony moralizing' among Democrats and a stance that 'blames America.'"

Michael Tomasky
writes in the Guardian: "Let's cut to the chase: If, God forbid, there is another terrorist attack on America, Cheney has with this speech ensured that rather than uniting behind the sitting administration – as conservatives insisted we all must do eight years ago – this country will be torn in two. That's a very toxic and dangerous game, and it certainly won't make for a stronger country. Now who's playing politics with national security?"

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann devoted his "Special Comment" to Cheney, who he described this way: "Neurotic. Paranoid. False to fact and false to reason. Forever self-rationalizing. His inner rage at his own impotence and failure dripping from every word and as irrational, as separated from the real world, as dishonest, as insane, as any terrorist."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "It has been evident for weeks that the relative seclusion Cheney kept as vice president was ending. In his speech yesterday, Cheney made it clear that he views himself as the principal keeper of the Bush legacy and a key player in making sure Obama does not mischaracterize the past eight years.

"Bush confidants said Cheney is not explicitly channeling his former boss. Bush is neither asking him to make the appearances nor discouraging him from doing so, said former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, who remains close to the 43rd president. But Perino applauded Cheney's decision to offer what she said is a 'full accounting' of the Bush presidency."

Eric L. Lewis writes for the Huffington Post: "Former Vice President Cheney has masterfully shifted the debate about torture from the realm of law and ethics to that of pure efficacy....

"The absolute prohibition on torture is not based on a consensus that it never works. Rather, it is based on the sad realization that the impulse to torture is ever-present; that human beings who are frightened or zealous or full of rage -- as human beings invariably are -- will feel a powerful need to torture and a powerful justification for acting on that need. It is useful to recall the understandable fear and anger after September 11 not to justify or excuse torture, but to understand that it is precisely at the moment of most stress that the norm against torture must be powerfully affirmed....

"We do not allow torture in the ticking time bomb scenario because when the would-be torturer looks out on the landscape, he sees it littered with ticking time bombs and people who might know something about them. We do not balance the costs and benefits to see if torture works because there will always be some argument that can be made that it works or it might work or people believed at the time that it would."

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