On torture, Obama content to leave dispute 'in the past'

Upon release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the George W. Bush administration's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on captured al-Qaida suspects, two prominent American figures stoutly defended the practice -- former Vice President Dick Cheney and current CIA director John Brennan.

Mr. Cheney's full-throated support, on last Sunday's "Meet the Press," was expected, inasmuch as he was an aggressive defender of expanded presidential powers in a variety of ways as vice president. He flatly confirmed that Bush approved the employment of waterboarding and other "EITs," declaring for himself that if he had to weigh in once more on their use, "I'd do it in a minute."


But Mr. Brennan's defense, in an unusual volunteered press conference at the CIA, was surprising, inasmuch as his boss, President Obama, prohibited further use of such techniques on the day after taking office. And when the committee report came out, Mr. Obama essentially said the debate should be put to rest.

Instead, Mr. Brennan went out of his way to disagree with the Senate on one key issue, challenging the notion that the EITs never produced information leading to the location and killing of Osama bin Laden that had not or could not have been acquired by other means. Mr. Brennan concluded that such a conclusion was "unknowable."


Mr. Obama seemed willing to leave the contentious debate go at that. But one Democratic senator, Mark Udall of Colorado (defeated for re-election last month), called for Mr. Brennan's resignation. The White House responded only that President Obama retained confidence in his suddenly outspoken CIA boss.

The episode, however, illustrated the growing dissatisfaction of Democratic liberals with Mr. Obama's disinclination to prolong the argument over what constitutes torture. Mr. Cheney's remarks were an open invitation, even as other Republicans have alleged that the whole torture discussion is another Democratic effort to revisit Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq and the tangled mess that has ensued since then.

Mr. Bush himself understandably has been willing to put it all behind him and let Cheney take the heat. The whole Iraq experience has left the two old allies personally at odds over one of Cheney's right-hand men, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the "outing" of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative.

When Mr. Libby was convicted and faced jail time, Mr. Cheney urged Mr. Bush to pardon his friend, but Mr. Bush only agreed to erase his sentence, leading Mr. Cheney to declare that Bush was "leaving a good man wounded on the field of battle."

In this latest debate over use of torture in the Bush presidency, however, Mr. Cheney jumped in vigorously in defending his old boss. He volunteered that Mr. Bush knew all about and approved the use of the enhanced interrogation techniques, while insisting himself that waterboarding was neither torture nor illegal and was cleared by Ms. Bush's Justice Department legal advisers.

On NBC News' "Meet the Press," Mr. Cheney argued that "we've avoided another mass-casualty attack against the United States," and by inference shared credit for the prime intelligence achievement of the Obama administration, saying: "We did capture bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys of al-Qaida who were responsible for that attack on 9/11."

As for the detainees that the Senate committee report said were taken and mistakenly held for years without trial, Mr. Cheney was characteristically candid. "I'm more concerned with bad guys that got out and released," he said, "than I am with a few that in fact were innocent."

Remaining in all this is the question of whether those CIA operatives who actually used these EITs on detainees should be prosecuted for practicing torture. The immediate and easy defense is that they were acting under orders, and that if any retribution is to be visited, it rightfully should go against those who approved of the use of such techniques and orders to apply them.


The question leads to broader concepts of war crimes that ideally go before international bodies created to wrestle with them. But that is not in the cards under a president content, as Mr. Obama has said, to leave such matters "where they belong -- in the past."

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is