When he was vice president, Dick Cheney got his way by secretly wielding the instruments of power. Now that he's no longer in government, Cheney is still pulling levers and pushing buttons - he's just doing it in plain view. And it's the media that he's manipulating.
After years of speaking in whispers, operating by proxy, and leaving as few fingerprints as possible, Cheney has figured out that he can say pretty much anything he wants, the networks will show it on TV, and the newspapers will dutifully print it. And best of all, they will fail to put it in any context whatsoever.
The first bit of context for any Cheney comment, of course, is that he is a monstrous liar. News articles about Cheney should routinely reminded readers of some of the things he said in the run-up to war in Iraq. Like, for instance: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." By any reasonable standard, this man's credibility was shot a long time ago.
Cheney's latest coup is to get the media to obediently recount what Rachel L. Swarns of the New York Times so naively and euphemistically called his "forceful defense of the full range of interrogation techniques used by intelligence officers."
In an interview with beyond-obsequious Fox News anchor Chris Wallace that aired on Sunday, Cheney once again alleged that what he calls "enhanced interrogation tactics" saved "thousands of lives and let us defeat all further attacks against the United States."
It wouldn't have been hard for reporters to put that particular claim in its proper context. Just last week, the CIA released two documents that Cheney had been huffing and puffing (and bluffing) about for months, insisting that they would once and for all definitively prove that torture had, as he put it, "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."
But just as we critics expected, when those reports were released, they included no such proof -- just a lot of cover-your-ass language from the CIA, vaguely describing intelligence findings gained from the overall interrogation of "high value detainees" generally speaking. There was no evidence that a single American life was saved, or of any valuable intelligence that couldn't have been gathered using traditional methods.
In fact, after all these years, and despite a slew of selective leaks while Cheney was still in power, there remains not one iota of proof that torture accomplished much of anything -- not that it would be OK if it had.
All we know for sure is that torture is still excellent at producing false confessions, just like it was designed to do.
Cheney also criticized Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to launch an extremely limited preliminary review into whether crimes were committed by the handful of interrogators who far exceeded even the Bush DOJ's patently illegal guidelines. Last week, I called this At Best, A Baby Step Toward Justice For Bush's Torturers. But Cheney, in his Fox interview, said the review "offends the hell out of me, frankly." He explained: "[W]e had a track record now of eight years of defending the nation against any further mass casualty attacks from Al Qaeda. The approach of the Obama administration should be to come to those people who were involved in that policy and say, how did you do it? What were the keys to keeping this country safe over that period of time? "
Any normal person -- or reasonable journalist -- would gasp at Cheney's spectacular gall, and marvel at his absolutism. (He even went so far as to say that the conduct being investigated, which includes threatening detainees with a drill, a gun, and the rape of family members to be "OK" by him.) But instead, the coverage was restrained, if not respectful.
And Cheney lied some more, in case anyone was looking for fresh evidence of his mendacity. Asked how much he knew about what the CIA was doing, Cheney replied: "I knew about the waterboarding. Not specifically in any one particular case, but as a general policy that we had approved."
This is a laughably blatant falsehood from the man who was, by many reliable accounts, the chief choreographer of the program, up to his elbows in gory details.
As ABC News reported in April 2008, for instance, top Bush aides including Cheney met in the White House basement to micromanage the application of waterboarding and other torture techniques starting immediately after the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, the low-level al Qaeda operative whose false confessions sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators chasing after imaginary threats. ABC reported that the CIA briefed the White House group on its plans to use aggressive techniques against Zubaydah and received explicit approval. Indeed, some interrogation sessions were virtually choreographed by the group.
And as blogger Marcy Wheeler points out, Cheney also mischaracterized what President Obama has previously said about who might or might not be prosecuted.
So what is Cheney's goal in all of this? I think Obsidian Wings blogger publius nails a big chunk of it, writing:
[H]e wants to politicize the torture debate as much as possible -- to transform a profound debate about our country's values into just another everyday Republican/Democratic partisan squabble that makes people throw up their hands and despair of knowing "the truth."
If you've noticed, Cheney tends to pop up in the aftermath of damning evidence. We just (re)learned, for instance, that our CIA agents murdered detainees, choked them, and threatened to rape their wives. Normally, you would think these revelations would give pause to even the most ardent Cheney supporters.
But then Cheney comes along, and tries to reframe the whole story. His intended audience isn't the nation as a whole, but conservatives. He wants to make sure that they view these stories through partisan-tinted lenses.
Indeed, muddying the debate was one of the most effective Bush-era communication tactics.
But Cheney has some other obvious motives, as well. As I wrote in May, there's also the small matter of his understandably strong desire to avoid investigation or prosecution -- and ignominy in the history books. After all, the best defense is a good offense.
Meanwhile, Cheney is still operating in the shadows, as well. Indeed, it's impossible not to see him (by proxy) behind what must have been, for him, an extraordinary coup: A front-page Washington Post story on Saturday chock full of anonymous sources implicitly validating his view of torture as a great tongue-loosener, despite the lack of any supporting evidence - and with nothing said about all the lies they uttered while being tortured.