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Cohen, Ford and the 1-2-3 Torture Test

May 12, 2009

At the end of the day, evaluating the Bush administration's program of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques is like a three-part exam. Was it legal? Was it moral? Was it uniquely effective? If the answer isn't "yes" to each and every one of those three questions, the Bush regime of detainee torture cannot be justified. Sadly for its defenders, this test isn't graded on a curve and there is no partial credit. And that, in a nutshell, explains why the policy and its confused apologists like Richard Cohen and Harold Ford get an F in War Crimes 101.
For his part, Vice President Cheney unsurprisingly has focused only on the efficacy of the administration interrogation practices, claiming still-classified CIA documents will vindicate his assessment that waterboarding terror suspects helped prevent possible attacks. While the consensus opinion disputes that claim, the imminent release of a 2004 CIA inspector general's report could prove the smoking gun. In a declassified summary, Steven G. Bradbury, then the Justice Department's principal deputy assistant attorney general, acknowledged in May 2005:

"It is difficult to quantify with confidence and precision the effectiveness of the program...As the IG Report notes, it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks. And because the CIA has used enhanced techniques sparingly, 'there is limited data on which to assess their individual effectiveness.'"

But for former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, the legality, morality and effectiveness of brutal interrogation tactics are of little consequence. Appearing on MSNC Monday, Ford made clear that for him at least, the real gave way to the hypothetical and the actual to the possible when it came to Guantanamo:

"You have to remember when this was occurring. This is 2002, 2003. The country was in a different place, in a different space. And if you were to say to me, as an American, put aside my partisanship, that we have an opportunity to gain information that would prevent the destruction of an American city, to prevent killings in American cities, and we have to use certain techniques, I'm one of those Americans that would have voted a certain way, Chris. And that polling said it might have been torture, but I'm not as outraged."

Almost on cue, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen produced a similarly confused defense of the indefensible. In a fit of speculation titled, "What If Cheney's Right?" Cohen fretted, "I have to wonder whether what he is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works." Accepting Cheney's premise that the torture debate "inescapably" is " about life and death -- not ideology, but people hurling themselves from the burning World Trade Center," Cohen reveals his epic failure to grasp the fundamental issue:

"In effect, Cheney poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?"

But as President Obama has repeatedly suggested, there should be no presumption that the morality and efficacy of American interrogation tactics must inevitably be opposites. And then there is the small question of American and international law. (Or as candidate George W. Bush put it in 2000, "In my administration, we will ask not only what is legal but what is right.") The Geneva Convention and the later Convention Against Torture signed by Ronald Reagan not only require that the U.S. prosecute those who perpetrated acts of torture, but clearly state that "an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture." To pretend otherwise is to claim, as White House counsel Alberto Gonzales did in a January 25, 2002 memo, that the Geneva Conventions had been rendered "quaint."
In his column, Richard Cohen concluded about the utility of torture, "If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, this could be Cheney's time." Alas, for Dick Cheney, Richard Cohen and Harold Ford alike, their arguments don't stand the tests of time or credulity. Figuring that out is as easy as 1-2-3.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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