Conservatives are torn. On the one hand, a “truth commission” to investigate enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration would criminalize policy differences, potentially tag the Bush administration’s good faith efforts to prevent a second 9/11 as “war crimes,” and tear the country asunder. All that strikes conservatives as dangerous in the extreme. And yet … the temptation to plunge into the abyss is palpable.
Tom McGuire writes:
So speaking as someone with no love for either Bush or Obama’s likely agenda, I say to the Truth Commission idea, bring it on. Nancy Pelosi being sworn in to lie about what she knew and when she forgot it — she has to be less dangerous to the country that way.
The idea of a truth commission is tantalizing for those itching to puncture the bubble of hypocrisy that has enveloped the Democratic-controlled Congress. As Porter Goss, former head of the CIA and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, noted:
I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as “waterboarding” were never mentioned.
Visions of Nancy Pelosi on the stand, caught in a web of denial and finally revealed as an abject liar, dance in Republicans’ heads. (“So you were briefed, Ms. Pelosi, and never objected! You never moved to cut off funding, did you?”) The desire to settle the score with those who vilify in hindsight but cheered contemporaneously is understandable.
And there is also the underlying suspicion that public truth commissions would prove so controversial and explosive as to permanently hobble Obama’s domestic agenda. Even Obama’s team sensed the danger of this as they pulled back last Thursday, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go dredging up the past. But the prospect of Obama’s ultra-liberal agenda grinding to a halt is precisely what is intriguing for conservatives, who recognize they are running out of procedural roadblocks to halt nationalized health care and the Democrats’ parade of statist proposals.
But most alluring for conservatives is the hope that the argument would finally be joined and the facts presented to the American people to establish what they have long argued: tough tactics (short of the common-sense understanding of “torture”) were used to save lives. The Bush administration, they hope, would finally get the credit it is due for keeping us safe for seven years after 9/11.
And this is the argument that seems to petrify liberals who have relied on the deeply held but factually dubious proposition that this was all “done for nothing.” In their eyes the Bush team was not only barbaric, but stupidly led the country down the path to moral ruin for no reason at all.
As the facts now dribble out, conservatives may have the upper hand. Former Bush administration advisor and speechwriter Marc Thiessen points out that by huge margins Americans favor actual torture, not just rough interrogation, to get information that would save lives. And there’s plenty to suggest the the Bush team’s utilization of harsh tactics did save lives. Thiessen writes:
In numerous subsequent speeches, President Bush said that the West Coast plot was disrupted because of the CIA program. Each of those speeches was carefully reviewed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — and each time the DNI provided the White House with a classified memo stating that the contents of the speech was accurate and did not compromise sources and methods. So the Director of National Intelligence has repeatedly affirmed the accuracy of the statement that the West Coast plot was disrupted because of the CIA program.
We can add to that the growing body of information that enhanced interrogation techniques assisted in disrupting plots by Jose Padilla, the strike on U.S. Marines at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the planned explosion of British airliners over the Atlantic, and anthrax attacks in the U.S. One senses a torrent of information is about to pour out into the public domain.
And if so, then what will be the judgment of history: that the Bush administration was populated by reckless buffoons, or by extremely skilled professionals who did what no one thought possible, namely prevent another attack on American soil?
It is therefore understandable that some are itching to “let it all hang out.” Let Pelosi explain her feigned ignorance. Have the country spend the next year on this rather than health care reform. And by all means talk about what would have happened if we played by Marquis of Queensbury rules with terrorists bent on killing Americans.
But in moments of quiet contemplation most conservatives know that way lies madness. They understand that the joy of watching Pelosi squirm would be outweighed by the sinking feeling that never again would competent people willing to make tough calls accept sensitive government assignments. They recoil against the notion that resorting to show trials and “high-tech lynchings,” to quote Justice Thomas, surely would poison the political atmosphere for decades. They, in their hearts, understand that we would be embarking on a never-ending cycle of recrimination and criminalization which we have almost entirely avoided for over 200 years.
On balance then, many (but certainly not all) conservatives urge the president to pull back from the precipice. Thanks to the doggedness of Vice President Cheney, we may get the memos which document much of what Thiessen describes anyway. But we can do without the histrionics and the blood lust. And even if the Left foolishly roots for political civil war, conservatives need not follow — no matter how tempting it might be.