By David Cole
Sunday, March 14, 2010; B01
Liz Cheney is getting a bad rap.
It's true that the former vice president's daughter, perhaps hoping to supplant David Addington as "Cheney's Cheney," evoked Sen. Joe McCarthy recently when she challenged the loyalty and patriotism of nine Justice Department lawyers who had represented Guantanamo detainees before joining the department. Since then, virtually anyone who is anyone has taken a page from the same history, channeled Joseph Welch and asked Cheney, "Have you no sense of decency?"
The infamous "al-Qaeda Seven" ad put out by Cheney's Keep America Safe organization has incurred the wrath not only of the usual suspects on the left, but of many members of the Bush administration, including former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, former White House lawyer Brad Berenson and John Bellinger, former legal adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department.
Even Ken Starr has rebuked Cheney, as has Charles "Cully" Stimson, who was himself forced to resign from the Defense Department in 2007 after he called on clients of corporate law firms to pressure the firms into dropping their representation of Guantanamo detainees.
But I am not here to pile on; rather, I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Liz Cheney. By revealing just how low the Cheneys will stoop to attack the Obama administration, she may have inadvertently pushed her father into the retirement he seems so reluctant to begin. Now that she has taken things too far, the networks and print media should take greater pause before trotting out the former vice president yet again, from a self-styled government in exile, to tell us what we are doing wrong. With any luck, the vicious attack on the "al-Qaeda Seven" will finally rid us of the Cheney Two.
I realize that I may be engaging in a bit of guilt by association myself here; after all, it was Liz, not Dick, who impugned the patriotism of the Justice Department lawyers. The sins of the daughter ought not necessarily be visited upon the father. But in this case, does anyone think that Liz acted without her father's blessing -- or that Dick isn't kicking himself that he didn't come up with the idea first?
Since he left office on Jan. 20, 2009, it seems as if we've seen and heard more from Dick Cheney than we did when he was actually running the country. Throughout the first year of the Obama administration, Cheney has appeared regularly on the networks to tell us how the current administration has led the country hopelessly astray on national security and in the fight against terrorism -- and how he and President Bush had it right all along.
And we've treated his peanut-gallery volleys as the stuff of high drama and serious debate. Who can forget the back-to-back speeches on national security offered by President Obama (at the National Archives) and Cheney (at the American Enterprise Institute) last May? Or his much-heralded virtual debate with his successor, Vice President Biden, on the Sunday talk shows last month?
Cheney's appearances seem to have driven the national debate -- and the Democrats -- to the right. The administration is reconsidering whether to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in civilian court, is running into roadblocks on closing the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and seems afraid to shine the light of accountability on the wrongs committed by the preceding administration in the name of combating terrorism.
Yet, just as Liz Cheney's attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder are more bluster than substance, more demagoguery than deliberation, so too have been her father's interventions. He's accused the Obama administration of not recognizing that we are at war -- despite the fact that Obama has escalated our military presence in Afghanistan and increased the use of drone attacks to kill alleged al-Qaeda leaders. He's condemned the administration for using the criminal justice process to arrest the would-be Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, rather than treating him as a military foe.
But Cheney's own administration used the criminal justice process against all the terrorism suspects it detained in the United States -- including shoe bomber Richard Reid, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, bomb plotter Jose Padilla and al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, not to mention hundreds of other terrorism suspects prosecuted in criminal courts.
Most insistently, the former vice president has maintained that the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques -- that is, slamming suspects into walls, stripping them naked, depriving them of sleep for up to 11 days straight, hitting them in the face and stomach, forcing them into stress positions and dark boxes for hours, and waterboarding them -- was not torture nor illegal, and saved thousands of lives. This is the core of Cheney's case precisely because it is the issue on which he is most vulnerable, having personally authorized the activities. And Liz Cheney has joined the defense, parroting her father's arguments nearly verbatim.
The truth is that it is difficult to find a lawyer -- or for that matter, a sentient human being -- outside the Bush administration who will say that waterboarding is not torture. And all of the tactics authorized were indisputably cruel, inhuman and degrading, which is why Cheney fought so hard (unsuccessfully) to defeat Sen. John McCain's 2005 amendment making crystal clear what was already plain to the rest of the world: that the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment protects all people, not just U.S. citizens or persons inside America's borders.
Moreover, there is no evidence that these tactics worked (even if that were a legitimate defense). When Obama released the Bush-era Justice Department memos that gave a green light to the CIA's coercive tactics, Cheney argued that he had seen other, still-secret CIA memos that established that the tactics obtained valuable intelligence and saved lives. He dared Obama to release them.
But when the Obama administration called his bluff in August 2009 and released a previously secret report by the CIA's inspector general on the interrogation program, that report disclosed that the coercive tactics had thwarted no imminent terrorist attacks and could not be shown to have produced intelligence that legal tactics did not produce or would not have produced.
What actually works, of course, is ultimately unknowable, but virtually all interrogators say that in their opinion, using force is far less effective and reliable. And the costs of coercive tactics are legion -- in tainted evidence that cannot be used to hold criminals accountable, in reluctance from other nations to work with our security services and in the propaganda gift that such tactics have handed to al-Qaeda. But the Cheneys apparently know better.
If anyone else made such unabashedly unsupportable claims on national network television, they would probably not be asked back, even if they could mimic Cheney's scary grandfather tone. But like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," Dick Cheney keeps coming back, in scarier and scarier guises.
No longer, I hope, now that Liz Cheney's attack on lawyers for upholding our constitutional values has received such widespread and bipartisan condemnation. Her channeling of her father's tactics should clue in the mainstream media -- and mainstream America -- to the fact that the former vice president, like his daughter, has gone too far. With any luck, the Cheneys will get a rest now. And so will we.
David Cole is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the legal affairs correspondent for the Nation. He is the author of "The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable."