Interrogation: CIA Program

Dahlia Lithwick on Cheney on Torture

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, September 5, 2011, 10:16 PM

Raffaela's compilation of reviews of Dick Cheney's book links to one which I think warrants a brief reply. Dahlia Lithwick takes on Cheney chiefly over interrogation, and she doesn't pull punches:

Cheney is trying, in short, to draw us back into the same tiresome debate over the efficacy of torture, which is about as compelling as a debate about the efficacy of slavery or Jim Crow laws. Only fools debate whether patently illegal programs "work"—only fools or those who have been legally implicated in designing the programs in the first place.

Who knows why Cheney wants to keep relitigating torture in the face of a factual record that has concluded for the thousandth time that it is neither effective nor legal. Maybe it's good for his book sales. All I know is that when almost everyone with any expertise in the matter, and any knowledge of the torture program (up to and including Matthew Alexander and John McCain) says that it hurts more than it helps, Cheney starts to sound a little like the crazy lady in the attic.

Dahlia is a friend, and I'm sure she didn't intentionally call me a fool, but I have read this passage half a dozen times trying to figure out  where it leaves someone like me. The answer, sadly, is that Dahlia is calling those who believe as I do the rough moral equivalents of those who debate the efficacy of slavery or Jim Crow; she is also calling us fools, at least those of us like me who have not been "legally implicated in designing the programs in the first place." And she is doing this because she considers the factual record concerning whether the program had any efficacy or any plausible legal support to be closed among reasonable people.

I have no brief for Cheney, but Dahlia here is sweeping with a very broad brush--and if she is right that these questions are closed, it is not just Cheney and his ilk that have a big problem. That said, it is simply not true that "the factual record . . . has concluded" that the CIA's coercive practices were not effective. This is a highly contested point among reasonable people. Nor is it true that there is any kind of consensus regarding where the legal and functional line lies that separates lawful coercion from prohibited cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment--much less torture. Dahlia can sweep these realities off the table with a dramatic ipse dixit, but when she does so, she's not just placing Dick Cheney beyond civilized company. A great many reasonable people, including some of my co-bloggers, struggled with these questions. If Dahlia's acid test is really whether one harbors doubts about the criminality of the CIA program and refuses to dismiss the possibility that it produced valuable intelligence that would not have been forthcoming by other means, then yes, count me among the fools.