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Cheney’s Tortured Logic

I don’t know if former Vice President Dick Cheney just misses being in the spotlight, or if he actually believes the stuff he spews on television these days, but he conveniently skipped over at least one important problem when he told CNN’s “State of the Union” today that President Obama’s changes to the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies has made Americans “less safe”: we now can’t prosecute all those terrorists tortured with Cheney’s approval.

I know Cheney isn’t a lawyer, and neither was President George W. Bush, which is maybe why they leaned so heavily and easily on the more bizarre opinions from former Office Of Legal Counsel lawyer John Yoo and his colleagues to justify what Cheney today called “alternative” interrogation tactics — such as vicious beatings, sleep deprivation, simulated drowning, hanging, temperature extremes, food deprivation, threats against prisoners’ families, and blaring rap music 24 hours a day.

But it’s a pretty big omission to forget that when you torture people, you have a really hard time holding them accountable for anything later on. That’s true even if you create your own special court — like the U.S. military commission implemented by the Bush administration.

Remember Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker on Sept. 11? Susan Crawford, the Pentagon official responsible for charging terror suspects on behalf of the military commissions, had to withdraw the charges against him, even before he faced a military commission, because he’d been tortured — in accordance with Cheney’s policies. His confession was therefore inherently unreliable, Crawford ruled. Apparently, the government had also failed to get any other usable evidence against him.

Crawford is no liberal: she was general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense. That’s in addition to being a senior Pentagon official under George W. Bush. But unlike Cheney, she is a lawyer, and she does have some respect for the rule of law.

Cheney and his war council might have thought it wise to throw out those rules in the name of making us all safe from terrorism. But even setting aside the widely known fact that information extracted through torture is unreliable, we’re not going to be very safe when we eventually try bring to trial all those alleged terrorists we’ve been holding, and then have to let them go free because their “confessions” don’t hold up in court. Cheney’s idea that the president could create a “special” court to get around that didn’t work either, as the Supreme Court made clear in it’s Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld ruling that even a military commission has to meet certain minimum standards of fairness.

Only the most tortured logic could allow Cheney to believe that his “alternative” interrogation techniques will ever meet those minimum standards.

Update: I added a link above to Mark Danner’s remarkable op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times describing the treatment of 14 “high-value” detainees, based on a confidential Red Cross report. For anyone who still finds it hard to believe that the U.S. really tortured prisoners, Danner’s piece is a must-read.

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