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Republicans On Torture, Post-Osama Bin Laden: Defending Against Prosecution?

05/10/2011 11:15 am ET | Updated Jul 10, 2011

In these days since President Barack Obama announced that a SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, notice how quickly Republicans -- in particular, officials of the George W. Bush administration -- have moved to assert that the Bush-Cheney torture program was the key to success.

John Yoo, Bush "Justice" Department author of "the torture memos," writes in The Wall Street Journal that bin Laden's killing "vindicated the Bush administration, whose intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden's door." Karl Rove, former Bush advisor, claims, "The tools that President Bush put in place -- Gitmo, rendition, enhanced interrogation... obviously served his successor quite well." Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's Defense Secretary, credits the "interviews that took place at Guantanamo."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, crafter and lead fullback of the flawed premise -- that after 9/11 we needed to operate on "the dark side" -- still endorses the dark arts: The day after bin Laden's death, he cited "an enhanced interrogation program that we put in place back in our first term," continuing, "it wouldn't be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture."

Notice, though, these testimonials were unsolicited. Was anybody talking about torture upon hearing of bin Laden's killing? (No.) These Bush officials insist too much. And why would they be so insistent? Could it be because they are vulnerable to prosecution for charges of war crimes---among them, condoning torture? (See here and here and here and here.)

Symptomatic of their vulnerability on this point is their use of euphemism. Thus, instead of using the term "torture," which still reeks of the Spanish Inquisition, they resort to weasel words like "architecture," "tools," and their group favorite, "enhanced interrogation." Leave it to the ever-rationalizing Rumsfeld, though, to come up with "interview."

This, then, is more than about stepping on Obama's triumph, or claiming a big chunk of a very big deal. This is about defense -- legal defense. Recall, these are the people who deemed the Geneva Conventions, the international protocol setting out the rules of war which previous administrations adhered to -- including the prohibition against torture -- as "quaint" (White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez' term). Recall, too, that one of the first things Mr. Obama did upon taking office was to recommit the United States to the Conventions. While he subsequently decided against prosecuting Bush officials, saying we needed to "look forward" and not back, other countries (notably Spain and Germany) have signaled a readiness to do so.

So, expect more Republican defensiveness on torture, with an emphasis on utility.

Taking this tack, New York Congressman Peter King made a media splash crowing that "Waterboarding works," referring to the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in 2003, which allegedly yielded the nom de guerre of bin Laden's courier.

But the question to put to King and his ilk is this: If waterboarding "works," why didn't the torture administration get their man years ago? Torture apologists always cited the "ticking-bomb" scenario, with Armageddon to erupt in 24 hours; yet bin Laden was killed a full seven years after that '03 water-boarding. No; what "worked" was patient assembly by our intelligence pros of an infinity of information over many years (see here and here).

Another source of Republican defensiveness: With the military being hailed for taking out bin Laden, Bush officials may be anxious that their torture policies will finally be seen -- by the public and the military -- to have endangered our nation's defenders, about whom they touted themselves more-supportive-than-thou. For argument's sake, jeopardy trumps utility. (See my op-ed from '06 on this point, citing Bush for dereliction of duty as Commander in Chief.)

But, more than more argument, I hope we seize this moment to hoist the discussion to a higher plane, bring to the public square the most profound of questions that a nation can address, but that Bush-Cheney did not allow: Which side of the moral line are we on?

We need also, desperately, to take a hard and honest look at the role that fear has played in our lives and policies in this decade since 9/11. With the elimination of The Big Bad bin Laden, the time is ripe for a reforming retrospection.

President Obama, in his pragmatic and nonmoralizing way, is trying to get us there -- to the moral high ground, the "upper air" -- by banning torture, recommitting to the Geneva Conventions, trying to close Guantanamo (unsuccessfully). And, in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, deciding against publishing the photos of the dead terrorist, so as not to parade war trophies or jeopardize our troops and diplomats. And in his famously cool demeanor, Mr. Obama models a wise response to fear.

But Bush-Cheney took us to "the dark side" -- to torture, rendition, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, going to war in Iraq based on lies of WMD. And they could take us there because of the throttling, brain-scrambling power of fear. Fear stole this nation's soul. Some of our countrymen marched into that dark territory freely, and blindly. But others of us were dragged, protesting mightily, heartsick and engulfed in shame. Bush-types mock us as idealists, but the beautiful thing is: America is premised on ideals. Now is the time -- high time -- to reset our compass, our premises, our ideals.

No wonder the Bush Republicans are on the defensive: They had the keys, but lost the kingdom. And the principal key, we now see, was marked Torture -- decision-making perhaps best reflected in the example of George W. Bush himself. In his recent memoir, Decision Points, Bush acknowledges he personally approved the use of torture, waterboarding specifically ("Damn right"), but earlier, while still in office, he acknowledged that Abu Ghraib was "the biggest mistake" of his war in Iraq. Talk about conflicted!

"The inescapable property of Time," wrote English philosopher Francis Bacon, "is ever more and more to reveal the Truth." The post-9/11 truth now revealed about Team Bush is this: their vulnerable hides---and their unquiet hearts.

[Re the war crime of an illegal war of aggression, see here for opinion on the Iraq war from a former Nuremberg Trials chief prosecutor and here for a more general discussion from a former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues.]

Carla Seaquist, who has written extensively on torture, is author of "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is working on a play titled "Prodigal" (www.carlaseaquist.com).