[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
All it took was two words. Two simple words from Dick Cheney -- two words we're used to seeing in a completely different context -- settled a question I had been ambivalent about since Barack Obama was elected president last month. The question was, "Should Democrats go after Bush administration officials for the extra-legal activity of the last eight years?" Thanks to Cheney, I think that the Justice Department should investigate the criminal activities of, at the very least, the soon-to-be (but not soon enough) ex-vice president relating to the U.S. practice of torturing prisoners.
What were the two words? "I do." ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl interviewed Cheney on Monday and, at one point, asked him:
"[O]ne of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?"
To which Cheney replied: "I do."
Earlier in the interview, Karl asked Cheney, "Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?", and Cheney replied:
"I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it."
(Keith Olbermann pointed out on Countdown last night that Cheney lied when he made that statement, since he and Bush first authorized the tactics used against Mohammed, and then the CIA came back looking for confirmation of the legality of the practices. Olbermann cited the bipartisan senate report on the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib on this point.)
In other words, the sitting vice president of the United States of America went on national television and admitted to millions of viewers that he was a war criminal.
Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. Waterboarding has been established in international law as a form of torture that is unlawful. After World War II, American prosecutors cited waterboarding as a war crime committed by Japanese officers. They used different names, like the "water cure" and "water torture," but the practice was essentially the same.
Cheney denies that the U.S. tortured prisoners during the Bush years, but his denial is weak, since he is admitting to putting into place practices that have nearly universally been considered to be torture.
Let's be clear what we are talking about here: As Evan Wallach, a judge in the U.S. Court of International Trade who teaches the law of war at Brooklyn Law School and New York Law School, and a former JAG officer, wrote in the Washington Post in November 2007:
"The media usually characterize the practice as "simulated drowning." That's incorrect. To be effective, waterboarding is usually real drowning that simulates death."
In another article by Wallach, he describes the practice in more detail, using testimony by American military personnel who experienced waterboarding. It is chilling to read, so disturbing that I have chosen not to reproduce the passages here. If you want to read it for yourself, click on the link and do so. Let's just say that the practice is more than just unpleasant; it results in the victim experiencing actual drowning.
As angry as I was (and continue to be) about the blatant disregard for the constitution and the rule of law showed by Bush and his administration, I was always hesitant over whether going after them would do more harm than good. When the Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, there were calls by many on the left for the party to bring impeachment charges against Bush, Cheney and others. Rep. Dennis Kucinich did, in fact, introduce impeachment resolutions against Bush and Cheney, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not allow the resolutions to move forward in the chamber.
After living through the ridiculous and baseless impeachment charges brought by the Republicans against Bill Clinton, I am leery of Congress using the impeachment hammer inappropriately. I also felt like such action would turn the truly abhorrent actions of the Bush administration into a political circus, having the effect of giving Bush and his cronies cover for their shocking behavior. "See, the Democrats are trying to score political points." And since, with 49 Republicans in the senate, it was highly unlikely any convictions would be secured, impeachment attempts would have handed Bush and the others exonerations, making it look like they had not committed any wrongful acts.
So I opposed bringing impeachment charges against anyone in the Bush administration. But the idea of Obama's Justice Department examining possible criminal charges against them raised different issues. In 2009, when Obama takes over, the country will be facing an array of difficult problems, including the worst economic downturn since World War II and wars in two countries, not to mention potentially explosvie situations in Asia from the Middle East to Pakistan. Remember, all it takes is 41 Republican senators to filibuster and kill any legislation. Addressing these problems will require Obama to gain at least some support from the Republicans. The question becomes: Do we want the new administration fighting the battles of the last president or working full-time on the problems facing the country today? Related to that, do the Democrats want to drive the Republicans into defense mode, leading to obstruction, or is it time to try and forge a more civil relationship so that Obama can get his programs through Congress?
But at the same time, I was troubled at the precedent that would be set by allowing government officials to flout the law and not be held responsible for their illegal actions. The message should be sent at all times that nobody is above the law. Say what you want about corruption in Illinois, but no shortage of the state's recent governors have found themselves behind bars (or, possibly, in Rod Blagojevich's case, on his way). Something seemed wrong -- and weak -- to me about letting Bush spend eight years taking actions that struck at the heart of American democracy, and then not holding his administration responsible for its actions. What kind of message would that send?
I was torn. And then Dick Cheney uttered those two simple words: "I do." And the scales tipped. Here's the thing: If members of the Bush administration would have at least acted like they might have done something wrong, a truth-and-reconciliation-type Congressional commission like the one currently under consideration could have found out what happened, and we could have learned our lesson and moved on. At least maybe. But if Cheney is going to go on national television and endorse torture, I feel like he has tied the hands of the country. How can we change our image, both to the rest of the world and to our own citizens, if we allow a sitting vice president to confess to supporting a policy of torture and do nothing about it?
No, Cheney has tipped the scale. I would hope that he has now forced the hand of Obama's choice for Attorney General, Eric Holder (yes, it will be Holder, the GOP whines about Marc Rich and Elian Gonzalez are acts of pathetic grandstanding that should go nowhere). I think Holder now has to investigate, in some fashion, allegations of criminal activity by members of the Bush administration, at the very least relating to torture. And he should do so, even if Bush pardons some or all of the actors involved.
Of all of Bush's enablers, Cheney was always the most unapologetic and brazen about defending the misdeeds of the administration. It will be only fitting if his decision to openly confess to aiding in torture leads to investigations of the Bush administration's illegal actions. There was a time I wasn't sure if such a course of action was wise. Thanks to Cheney, I now think we have no choice in the matter. Let's hope Obama and Holder agree.