The World, Through Dick Cheney’s Eyes
One more thing about former Vice President Dick Cheney and torture, loosely connected to Ross Douthat’s New York Times column. If you’re Dick Cheney, right now, it’s got to feel like history is repeating itself. My copy of Bart Gellman’s Cheney biography, “Angler,” is at home right now, but if you go through it, you’ll see that a seminal moment in Cheney’s career comes in the 1970s, when the Church and Pike commissions expose massive illegality in the intelligence community, prompting new legal actions to restrain it. (The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was one.) Cheney draws from the experience the conclusion that legitimate executive power is under siege and needs to be expanded from the overreach of Congress if national security is to be protected. As far as I’m aware, Cheney hasn’t given any statement to indicate that Gellman had that wrong.**
Leave aside for a moment the merits of the case. Right now, the CIA, at the behest and with the encouragement of the Bush administration, is having its dirty laundry aired through the disclosure of the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos. There’s the prospect — possibly not the likelihood, but at least the prospect — of another congressional commission into past the agency’s interrogation and detention activities during the Bush years. Certainly there’s a Senate intelligence committee inquiry under way. Cheney allies like Porter Goss, a former CIA director, are already warning that agency morale is cratering (which is ironic, since Goss came into the agency like a meatcleaver to purge supposed anti-Bush elements at CIA, but let’s leave that aside). It’s got to feel to Cheney like the end of “Battlestar: Galactica.” All this has happened before, and will happen again …
The question is whether Cheney will examine whether the Bush administration’s actions played any role in contributing to the prospective agency retrenchment. (Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that such a thing will occur.) Again, leave aside the merits of the arguments for torture or against it. The fact is the Bush administration and the Tenet-era CIA leadership encouraged and blessed the agency to go very far outside the boundaries of what it was previously allowed to do. Never before was the CIA in the detention business. It did not maintain a corps of interrogators before 9/11. And there was never a legal redefinition of U.S. laws and treaty obligations about torture. The available evidence suggests that the congressional leadership of the Democratic Party was complicit in, at least, aspects of that arrangement.
But did Cheney think that the political situation was permanent? That the United States wouldn’t revisit the apparatus of interrogation and detention created in the aftermath of 9/11? Hadn’t the Bush administration placed the CIA out on a limb? Wasn’t it foreseeable that such a thing wouldn’t last forever?
Perhaps the lesson of the Church/Pike era, and this current one, isn’t that Congress ought not to intrude onto the prerogatives of the executive, but rather that the executive shouldn’t require the CIA or other agencies to break/stretch/redefine the law.