The Magazine

Cheney vs. Obama

The CIA interrogation debate is joined.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The Obama administration is confused.

The president says harsh interrogation techniques "do not make us safer," but his top intelligence adviser says the same techniques produced "high-value information" that gave the U.S. government "a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country."

Obama White House officials routinely boast that theirs is "the most transparent administration in history," but then they release Justice Department memos about the interrogations in which the assessments confirming the value of those techniques are blacked out.

Attorney General Eric Holder tells a congressional committee that he is unaware of memos about the information gleaned in harsh interrogations that have been requested by former Vice President Dick Cheney, but his boss, the president, not only knows about those memos but also describes their contents to members of Congress.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the administration could support an independent investigation of interrogation techniques based on the 9/11 Commission. Then he says that Obama decided long ago that such an investigation would be too political.

Such evidence of confusion is abundant. But nowhere is it more pronounced than on the question of possible criminal prosecutions related to coercive interrogations. Administration officials, including the president, have gone out of their way to leave open the possibility of prosecuting those responsible for the interrogation techniques.

Holder said that he will "follow the law." But administration officials have also made clear that they do not want to target CIA officials who were, in the common phrasing, just doing their jobs. In a speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Obama said that the agency had his "support and appreciation" and promised that he will "be as vigorous in protecting you, as you are vigorous in protecting the American people."

Here is the problem: CIA officers are the ones who devised and recommended the harsh interrogation techniques.

"CIA officers came up with a series of interrogation techniques that would be carefully monitored at all times to ensure the safety of the prisoner," former CIA director George Tenet wrote in his 2007 book, At the Center of the Storm. "The administration and the Department of Justice were fully briefed and approved these tactics."

In his letter on April 16, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, wrote:

It was during these months that the CIA was struggling to obtain critical information from captured al Qaeda leaders, and requested permission to use harsher interrogation methods. The OLC memos make clear that senior legal officials judged the harsher methods to be legal.

By what reasoning would the Obama administration indemnify those who came up with the techniques and used them while targeting those who approved them? There is a simple answer. The country would almost certainly have little appetite for a legal action directed at the intelligence professionals working to keep us safe after 9/11. But going after the legal functionaries of an unpopular Republican administration--that's quite different.

In an interview, former Vice President Dick Cheney says any prosecutions would be unprecedented and outrageous.

This is the first time that I can recall that we've had an administration come in, take power, and then suggest using the power of the government against their predecessors, from a legal standpoint. Criminal prosecution of lawyers in the Justice Department whose opinions they disagreed with on an important issue. Criminal prosecutions. When was the last time that happened?

Cheney has requested that the National Archives declassify and release to him copies of two CIA memos--15-20 pages each--that describe the intelligence obtained through the harsh interrogations. He wants that information out so that the American public can correctly evaluate the program. The refusal of the Obama administration to make those documents public, he says, reeks of hypocrisy.

If the way the operation is going to work is they release only those things that support their case and refuse to release those that support their critics' case, I don't know how they're going to play that. If I were them, I'd be concerned. You're going to have to come up with them sooner or later.

I asked Cheney about George W. Bush's statement that he would not criticize his successor. In a comment that many took to be a shot at his former vice president, Bush said of Obama, "He deserves my silence."

Cheney disagrees.