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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Dick Cheney’s defense of CIA torture shows how low we can go

Former Vice President Dick Cheney.AP/file 2013

We’ve pretty much reached a point where Dick Cheney can make the most astounding statements on national television and it barely raises an eyebrow. It is just Cheney being Cheney.

But even by the former vice president’s debased standards his appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press’’ was stunning. It’s rare to see a former public official not only dissemble so openly, but to engage in the kind of moral reasoning that would give dictators pause.

First, Cheney used the “legal” justifications provided by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel so-called torture memo in 2002 to justify the CIA’s use of torture. As Cheney is well aware, these memos were retracted by Jack Goldsmith, the OLC’s director in 2004, because, as he said in his memoirs, they lacked a foundation in the law and appeared to be intended “to confer immunity for bad acts.” Cheney’s invoking of these discredited documents is, if anything, a confirmation of Goldsmith’s argument.

Second, Cheney said sticking pureed hummus, pasta and nuts up a detainee’s anus was “done for medical reasons,” and he said, repeatedly, that “waterboarding is not torture.”


For the record, here’s what the Senate report says about the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah:

“At times Abu Zubaydah was described as ‘hysterical’ and ‘distressed to the level that he was unable effectively to communicate’. Waterboarding sessions ‘resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms’ and ‘hysterical pleas’. In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah ‘became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.’”

Third, Cheney dismissed the Senate’s torture report as a biased, partisan witch hunt and insisted that Americans should listen to the claims of the CIA on torture. As Senator Mark Udall pointed out in a remarkable Senate speech last week, the CIA’s own internal, still classified, review of the torture program (known as the Panetta review) directly contradicts pretty much everything that Cheney is saying about torture these days.


And there was much more — including repeated references to 9/11 as a justification for the torture of suspected terrorists by the CIA. But that Cheney continues to make arguments on behalf of torture that are verifiably wrong is not the worst part of what he said yesterday.

That came when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Cheney about Gul Rahman, a detainee who was chained to the wall of a freezing cold cell in Afghanistan, doused with water, and eventually froze to death. Rahman’s detention was, according to the Senate report, a case of mistaken identity.

Cheney’s answer is amazing:

“But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield . . . I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.’’

When Todd pushed the argument by pointing out that 25 percent of the detainees were innocent and asked if Cheney was OK with that margin of error, the former vice president said:

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.”

Just think about this for a second. Cheney is completely fine with innocent people being tortured and killed, so long as the United States is able to avoid another terrorist attack.


Nowhere does Cheney express any remorse for an individual killed by the US government who was neither a terrorist, nor a threat to Americans. The ends are justification enough for the means — whatever, it appears, those means happen to be. It begs the question of whether there is anything that the US government could do to allegedly prevent a terrorist attack that would shock the conscience of Cheney.

On the flip side, there’s a positive takeaway from this. It’s a textbook example of why laws against torture — and their enforcement — actually matter. Clearly, if given the opportunity and get-out-of-jail-free card, some governments will torture and will construct elaborate rationalizations for their actions. Cheney’s interview is a useful and chilling reminder of the depths to which America can sink.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.