Commentary: Obama and D.C. dance the torture minuet

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2009 

There they go again, those folks in Washington, D.C. Everyone wants the power; nobody wants the responsibility.

We're back to the question of which Bush administration officials ordered Justice Department lawyers to concoct some legal way to use illegal torture methods on the prisoners we were taking in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

It appears that no one in power or recently out of power wants to know the answer to that question.

The Republicans in Congress, who resemble nothing so much as a dwindling flock of whooping cranes, have been nothing but surly since last November. Now they’re threatening to get nasty if the Democrats across the aisle insist on unearthing the truth - the who, what, when, where and why - about the torture question.

(Spare me your e-mails about how waterboarding isn't torture; even John McCain, who knows more about torture than you do, agrees that it is.)

President Barack Obama doesn't want or need this issue sucking all the oxygen out of the Congress and his ambitious agenda, and he just wishes it would go away. His position, if you can call it that, changes daily, if not hourly. He and his people look and sound like a hokey-pokey line on the issue.

The problem is that they're all thinking and acting like politicians, and there's nothing in this issue for any of them except an opportunity to do the right thing. Whoever won an election by doing the right thing? Talking about doing the right thing is another matter.

Torture, however, isn't a political problem, but a legal and moral problem, and therein lies the painful rub.

The new president and his administration released a few of the Top Secret memos that show how and why the lawyers in the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) went to work turning criminal acts into just another day at the office for CIA and military interrogation officials.

Then, however, the president hurried out to McLean, Va. to assure CIA employees that none of them will ever face prosecution for just following orders and using methods that they thought were legal - even though one of his first acts as chief executive was to halt the use of torture and order the closing of Guantanamo prison.

Next, the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, released a long-delayed timeline of how the torture issue wended its way from the highest offices in the land to the OLC and across the Potomac to the Pentagon and CIA headquarters and down to cells in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and rent-a-dungeons hidden away around the world.

In the process, we learned that one high-ranking al Qaida prisoner was subjected to waterboarding, a barbaric tool in the torturer's kit that involves suffocation and near-drowning, not one time for 20 seconds, as reported earlier, but 83 times. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed got the same treatment 183 times, or an average of six times a day.

The new director of national intelligence, Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, said that some useful information was squeezed out of the torture chambers, but he isn't certain that this information couldn't have been gained without resorting to techniques borrowed from the Spanish Inquisition.

Former Bush administration luminaries, beginning with former Vice President Darth Cheney and proceeding down the chain, hasten to declare that torturing those people made America safe, or safer than it was on 9/11, when they were all ignoring a CIA warning that Osama bin Laden was "determined to strike in U.S.."

Even if you believe that the end justifies the means and ignore the numerous factual flaws in this ex post facto defense, it doesn't address the question of how many of the 4,954 American troops who’ve been killed to date in Afghanistan and Iraq were killed by Islamic jihadists who were recruited in part by the revelations that we were torturing helpless Muslims. How much safer did those orders to torture make our young men and women?

The plain fact is that waterboarding is illegal under U.S. law. It's illegal under international laws and treaties that we helped negotiate, we approved and we adhered to until President Bush and his men and women decided that we wouldn't.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has revived his proposal for a bipartisan Truth Commission to investigate the well-known and less well-known authors of this legal and moral outrage. If the Republicans continue to refuse to participate, as they have so far, he says, then he's prepared to launch a congressional investigation.

What's truly disheartening is to watch all the ducking, bobbing and weaving in the nation's capital - like so many powder-haired dandies prancing a minuet.

Yes, it's an ugly chapter in the life of a nation that prides itself on its freedoms and its rule of law. But it's more than that: It's a splendid opportunity for a bunch of politicians from both parties to find their spines, or borrow some, and get to work cleaning out the dark corners in the White House and emptying the closets of skeletons.

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