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Democrats Take a Second Look at Torture

3:42 PM, Dec 3, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Michael Scherer flags this quote from Dianne Feinstein in today's Times:

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, led the fight this year to force the C.I.A. to follow military interrogation rules. Her bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush.

But in an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. "I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible," she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.

Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: "The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them."

I, too, support use of noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible, though obviously reasonable people can disagree about where that line is. Democrats -- or at least those who will be held accountable in the event of another terror attack against this country -- seem to suddenly grasp the complexity of this issue.

As Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency, he frustrated conservatives by staking out two sides on nearly every issue -- though not consecutively, as John Kerry did, but concurrently. Obama was opposed to telecom immunity in principle but he voted for it. On the war, Obama called for the speedy withdrawal of troops, but insisted he would maintain a strike force in the country and that he would not be held to the 16-month timetable he promised supporters on the stump. On Iran Obama promised direct and unconditional meetings, but also insisted on "preparations." Much to the relief of conservatives, since his election Obama seems to have dropped the goofier left-wing positions favored by the Democratic base in favor of the pragmatic positions most likely to keep the country safe and get him reelected in four years. Apparently Feinstein is taking his lead.

Still, rank and file liberals continue to press the case for war crimes trials of the Bush administration officials who saw that it was not always possible to use a noncoercive standard. Take for instance Dahlia Lithwick, who today writes what she herself describes as a petty plea for "legal accountability for the architects of President Bush's abusive-interrogation, secret-rendition, and warrantless-wiretapping programs." Lithwick accuses the Bush administration of having "authorized torture, rape, and worse." Well, surely they tried to use a noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible, as will their Democratic successors if they're smart.