The show has always asked the question directly and indirectly, how far should one person and one government go to protect its citizens?
We are now watching that issue play out in the real life debate with the recently released memos from the Bush administration that authorized aggressive (some say torture) interrogations of terrorists.
Hugh Hewitt points to this NY Times piece that frames the issue clearly. Excerpt:
For both sides, the political stakes are high, as proposals for a national commission to unravel the interrogation story appear to be gaining momentum. Mr. Obama and his allies need to discredit the techniques he has banned. Otherwise, in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators.Aside from investigating the issues at hand, the raising of the possibility of prosecution of former Bush administration officials may make things even more difficult than they are as discussed in this WSJ piece. Excerpts:
But if a strong case emerges that the Bush administration authorized torture and got nothing but prisoners’ desperate fabrications in return, that will tarnish what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have claimed as their greatest achievement: preventing new attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
Policy disputes, often bitter, are the stuff of democratic politics. Elections settle those battles, at least for a time, and Mr. Obama's victory in November has given him the right to change policies on interrogations, Guantanamo, or anything on which he can muster enough support. But at least until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements. This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power.UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer of the WaPo weighs in on the topic. Excerpt:
Congress will face questions about what the Members knew and when, especially Nancy Pelosi when she was on the House Intelligence Committee in 2002. The Speaker now says she remembers hearing about waterboarding, though not that it would actually be used. Does anyone believe that? Porter Goss, her GOP counterpart at the time, says he knew exactly what he was hearing and that, if anything, Ms. Pelosi worried the CIA wasn't doing enough to stop another attack. By all means, put her under oath.
Mr. Obama may think he can soar above all of this, but he'll soon learn otherwise. The Beltway's political energy will focus more on the spectacle of revenge, and less on his agenda. The CIA will have its reputation smeared, and its agents second-guessing themselves. And if there is another terror attack against Americans, Mr. Obama will have set himself up for the argument that his campaign against the Bush policies is partly to blame.
Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow.
Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge.Some people have said, the Allies didn't torture POWs in World War II. True enough. However, the situation is not comparable. The average POW in WWII was a low level foot soldier with little knowledge of the plans of the enemy beyond a small unit level. At the moment, it appears that water-boarding was authorized for very high level prisoners (sounds like only three?) who probably had substantial knowledge of Al-Qaeda. Additionally, these interrogations appeared to have been under strict guidelines and logs kept of the information obtained. Investigations should go forward to find out if guidelines were followed or violated and whether useful information was obtained. If individuals crossed the line then there has to be punishment as in the case of Abu-Ghraib prison. As a matter of national policy, torture should be illegal except under the rarest of circumstances.
The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great.
It is one thing to have disagreed at the time and said so. It is utterly contemptible, however, to have been silent then and to rise now "on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009" (the words are Blair's) to excoriate those who kept us safe these harrowing last eight years.
UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded as part of a Vanity Fair essay on the topic of torture.