The Senate Intelligence Committee had to release details on its multi-year investigation into how, under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the Central Intelligence Agency employed tactics that the world understands as torture. A decision to sit on the findings of what the 500-plus-page summary of the report begins by describing as a “brutal” and “flawed” program that was “in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values” would have put senators who are elected to serve and advance the public interest at odds with a basic American premise: the idea that a government acting in the name of the American people must regularly seek and obtain their informed consent.
This premise does not deny the necessity of action in an emergency. Nor does it require consultation so constant or picayune that all flexibility would be lost. But it does expect that officials can and shall be honest with the American people about long-term initiatives, about accepted tactics and about the values that guide this country as it engages domestically and internationally. In particular, it expects frankness and cooperation in interactions with the Congress that the people elect to check and balance the executive branch.
The Bush-Cheney administration did more than simply abandon this premise.
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As Arizona Senator John McCain said, in defending the release of the report, the CIA interrogation program as it operated during the Bush-Cheney years “stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good.”
With Cheney taking the lead, the former administration aggressively and repeatedly rejected the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential to maintaining not just national honor but meaningful democracy. And the assault continues, as Cheney, in particular, maintains the pattern of denial and defense that characterized his tenure as the most powerful—and secretive—vice president in American history.
Without reading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s lengthy summary, or the broader 6,000-page study that has not been made public because of what’s been described as “a prolonged tussle between the CIA and the committee over how much of the material should be classified,” Cheney was already attacking it. With his typical combination of bombastic aggression and refusal to face the facts—especially when those facts reveal the extent to which his own statements have been untrue—Cheney on the eve of the summary’s release decried the study as “a bunch of hooey.”
Cheney rejects what CNN describes as “the central conclusion” of the study: “that CIA employees exceeded the guidelines set by Justice Department memos that authorized the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and that the agency misrepresented to Congress and the White House what it was doing.”
“The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program,” claims Cheney, choosing, as he did throughout his vice presidency, to dismiss actual information in favor of a personal narrative where he is always right.
Doubling down in defense of what can only be described as “Cheneyism,” the former vice president is justifying waterboarding and other tactics as “absolutely, totally justified” and claiming that those who engaged in tactics that have long been identified as torture “ought to be decorated, not criticized.”
Presumably, Cheney includes himself on a longer list of those deserving decoration, as he boldly declares, “If I had to do it over again, I would do it.”
It is this overarching arrogance that has consistently put Cheney at odds with American ideals and American values regarding transparency and accountability. Even with the passage of time, even in the face of carefully gathered and carefully examined facts that suggest his own past statements were not just wrong but deliberately deceptive, the former vice president will not accept, let alone respect, any questioning of his absolute authority.
When he left office in January, 2009, Cheney’s approval rating was just 13 percent.
Now Cheney expects his fellow Republicans to embrace not just his sweeping rejection of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report, but to his broader approach. Some are already following the former vice president’s lead—despite the irony of having complained so loudly (and sometimes appropriately) about a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. They are wrong to do so.
It needs to be understood, by people of all partisanships, that Cheney really is the outlier here. As difficult and challenging as a moment like this may be for Republicans and for some Democrats, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is correct when she says, “This is a gut-check moment for our democracy.”
“The world knows we tortured,” explains McCaskill. “But does the world know yet that we’ll hold up our values and hold our government accountable?”
Going back to his days in the Nixon White House, and certainly during his time as the Reagan administration’s chief defender during the Iran/Contra inquiry, Cheney has rejected accountability and transparency. Indeed, he has for so long been so over-the-top in this regard that the opposite of the set of values mentioned by McCaskill is best understood as “Cheneyism.”
There are Republicans who have rejected “Cheneyism”— not least McCain, who on Tuesday, announced “the truth is a hard pill to swallow (but) the American people are entitled to it.”
More Republicans need to step up in defense of transparency and accountability, recognizing the wisdom of the Republican leader who best explained the necessity of transparency and accountability.
It was not a liberal Democrat, but rather a retired general, Dwight Eisenhower, who counseled the American people to always remember that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”