If you have been reading Mark Danner's look at the CIA's use of torture in the New York Review of Books in the past couple of editions, you will feel sick to the core. By releasing the memos sanctioning 'enhanced interrogation techniques' at the weekend, the administration has taken the story off the rarefied pages of the Review and projected it across the mainstream media. But now, they have reasserted their position that there should not be an independent review into the use of 'harsh administration techniques' on terrorist suspects called for by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and others. This is a huge and potentially very costly mistake.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been on the airwaves over the last few weeks as has Karl Rove followed by the familiar neo-conservative phalanx. As Danner explains the purpose is two-fold. Firstly, it is designed to exonerate. That is they are determined to excuse the actions taken by Bush administration members such as Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld, and Cheney, in sanctioning the reprehensible techniques that were deployed. The second purpose is more insidious. They are projecting forward and preparing the ground for a full frontal attack on the Obama administration should there be, God forbid, another attack on US soil. The argument goes something along the lines of: these techniques, though harsh, have protected us in the past and are critical to protecting us in the future; nobody likes it but it is necessary.
This is a political time bomb. Neo-conservatives never die. They do not even lie dormant. They are already aggressively fighting back and they will seize their moment. The president's concern that to consume too much energy in looking back he will be sapping the political energy of his administration is a concern too far. Instead, he needs to confront this in a comprehensive and clear way that asks the questions: what happened, who sanctioned it, what was learned, and what impact- positive (preventing attacks?) or negative (provoking anger towards the US and laying the ground for terrorist recruitment)- did it have? It is this last question that is the politically explosive one and must be addressed if the Obama administration is not going to expose itself to major political risk. A commission is the way to provide answers to these questions.
What of CIA morale? This is a very tricky issue and one that has to be factored in when considering the right route forward. A high functioning CIA able to recruit the best and the brightest is critical to the US national security. Pragmatically, it may be necessary to accept the Nuremberg 'under orders' defence. However, those who gave legal advice and sanctioned that advice in the Bush administration must certainly not be immune.
Torture contravenes the Third Geneva Convention which declares both "torture" and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" to be illegal. It also contravenes the 1984 Convention Against Torture and the 1996 War Crimes Act. There could be some very high profile legal cases as a result of the findings of a commission. Well, if they are indicted, it will question their credibility further.
Fighting on so many fronts is exhausting and difficult. It is understandable that the administration wants to avoid opening up a new front on the alleged war crimes of the Bush administration. In terms of short-term political pragmatism, the decision is entirely logical. It is, however, a hugely risky decision. It is too risky. Cheney and his gang are busy sowing the seeds for a future political assault . These guys can operate strategies over decades let alone a few years. The only way counteract this strategy is to nip it in the bud and destroy the credibility of those who have sanctioned and continue to excuse torture.
This is not just about the past as the Obama administration asserts. It is also about the future.
Torture is an offense to the universal values of human dignity and freedom which we espouse. Those who violate these values in our name should be held to account. That is just. Moreover, if this administration wants to shield itself politically then is must confront this issue now. Events dear boy, events.