So I thought it would be worthwhile to offer Todd some suggestions on questions he might ask Cheney, in order to elicit the most revealing answers as we have this vital debate on our recent past.
You have long insisted that techniques like waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation are not torture. In order to come to that conclusion, you must have a definition of torture that those techniques do not meet. So what is your definition of torture?
This may seem like a matter of semantics, but it is an absolutely central question to this entire debate, and one that neither Cheney nor any of the other Bush administration defenders of the torture program have ever answered. When asked, Cheney has always simply insisted that we didn’t torture, and that the “enhanced” techniques we used aren’t torture Why? Because they aren’t. Unlike most sane Americans, I’ve actually read Cheney’s turgid memoir, “In My Time,” and there too he simply states flatly that “The program was safe, legal, and effective,” but not torture.
There is a common definition of torture — the infliction of extreme physical or mental suffering in order to obtain information or a confession — that is reflected in U.S. law, the UN Convention Against Torture, and in the minds of pretty much everyone around the world. Under no reasonable interpretation of the term would something like stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain and which have been used as a torture technique for centuries, not qualify. But Cheney doesn’t agree. So he really ought to tell us what he thinks does constitute torture.
We’ll have a new president in two years. Would you advise him or her to restart the torture program?
Two days after taking office in 2009, Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the use of cruel and degrading techniques, and declaring that all U.S. personnel, whether in the CIA or any other agency, would have to abide by the interrogation guidelines set out in the Army Field Manual. It also revoked a 2007 order signed by President Bush, which had declared that “members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces” were outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
What I asked yesterday applies here: Since Cheney is an enthusiastic defender of the torture program in place during the Bush years, and since there are still terrorists in the world, one might presume that he believes not only that it was right to torture suspects in the past, but that we should continue to torture suspects in the future. He should have the chance to make clear whether that is in fact what he believes, and what his advice to the next president would be.
If things like waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation are “safe, legal, and effective,” but are not torture, would you recommend that other countries also use them on prisoners they hold?
Some liberals have noted that Cheney’s implicit position is that these techniques are not torture if we perform them, but would be torture if someone else did. Since this is obviously not something anyone would admit to believing, Cheney should be asked directly if he thinks other countries should also start using these techniques. That would apply to our allies, but it could also apply to less friendly countries like China or Russia. And of course, the natural follow-up is: If an American is captured in some conflict and is subjected to things like waterboarding and stress positions, would Cheney tell that person that not only hadn’t he been tortured, but he had been treated in a safe and legal manner?
During the run-up to the Iraq War and in its early days, you told the American people many things that were false. I know you still believe that all things considered, the war was the right thing to do. But do you think that if you and other members of the Bush administration had argued only from what you actually knew to be true, the public would have supported the war?
The Iraq War’s defenders furiously resist the idea that it was sold on false premises. Some of the things administration representatives said, like “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” were misleading bits of fear-mongering, but were technically hypothetical. However, many of the other things they said were provably false. That’s why, if and when Todd asks such a question, he should have some specifics at hand to keep Cheney from simply asserting that it was all a matter of interpretation and our judgment based on what we thought at the time. What distinguished Cheney’s remarks from those of some of his colleagues was that they were spoken without any qualification or hedging, but were stated as undeniable facts.
For instance, in an August 26, 2002, speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cheney said: “We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” That was false. He also said: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Not only was this not true, the idea that there was “no doubt” about it was also not true — it was a matter of vigorous debate within the intelligence community, a fact of which Cheney was surely aware.
In an appearance a week later on Meet the Press, Cheney said, “we do know, with absolute certainty, that [Saddam Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” Tim Russert then asked: “He does not have a nuclear weapon now?” And Cheney replied, “I can’t say that. I can say that I know for sure that he’s trying to acquire the capability.”
Or there’s his statement that “it’s been pretty well confirmed” that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta traveled to Prague to meet with Iraqi intelligence officials, an utterly bogus story that was nothing like “pretty well confirmed” when Cheney made the claim. I could go on, but it’s worth probing whether Cheney thinks that deceiving the public in the manner they did was necessary to achieve what he sees as a greater good.
Since the end of the recession, the economy has created over 10 million new jobs. Even if we count from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency when hundreds of thousands of jobs were being shedded every month, he has still overseen the creation of a net of six million jobs. In its eight years in office, the Bush administration created a net of 1.3 million jobs. Why has Barack Obama done better than your administration did on job creation?
This is a non-torture-related bonus question. Perhaps Cheney would respond, as many conservatives would, that Barack Obama deserves no credit for anything good that happens with the American economy. But the follow-up would then be, does that mean George W. Bush had no effect on the economy either? The Bush administration enacted huge tax cuts which, all the administration’s representatives assured the public, would result in an explosion of job growth. That never happened. How would Cheney explain it?
One thing we should be able to agree on is that Todd shouldn’t waste his time with Cheney doing things like handicapping the 2016 presidential race. Cheney doesn’t answer questions very often, so when he does, the interviewer ought to make the most of the opportunity.