With his ABC interview Vice President Dick Cheney put a smoking gun on the table. He admitted that he, along with other top administration officials, personally approved the CIA's waterboarding of prisoners. That he said it unapologetically is merely his low-keyed way of declaring open war.
President Bush has been working on his legacy by circulating an upbeat, 2-page talking point memo with a description of his successes in office. Bush likes to white-wash and obfuscate. Cheney prefers a more aggressive approach.
Always blunt, two-fisted, and condescending, the question is, why admit that he approved waterboarding? And why now? Maybe it was egotism, pure and simple, his own version of a legacy campaign where he takes credit for a policy that he asserts made America safe. But to his detractors it is an admission of guilt that is prosecutable, as damning as Jack Kervorkian's 60 Minutes interview that landed him in prison.
What he is responding to is the accusation in the just released Senate Armed Services Committee Report on the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody that condemns the Bush administration in no uncertain terms:
A major focus of the Committee's investigation was the influence of Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training techniques on the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody. SERE training is designed to teach our soldiers how to resist interrogation by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions and international law. During SERE training, U.S. troops --- in a controlled environment with great protections and caution --- are exposed to harsh techniques such as stress positions, forced nudity, use of fear, sleep deprivation, and until recently, the waterboard. The SERE techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody. The Committee's investigation found, however, that senior officials in the U.S. government decided to use some of these harsh techniques against detainees based on deeply flawed interpretations of U.S. and international law.
The Committee concluded that the authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials was both a direct cause of detainee abuse and conveyed the message that it was okay to mistreat and degrade detainees in U.S. custody.
There are those who argue that the Bush administration committed war crimes during their prosecution of the War on Terror. Nothing could be done during their tenure, but as January 20th rapidly approaches, some are already making the case, asking how these abuses of power could not be prosecuted. In his book "How to Break a Terrorist," in interviews and articles, a former interrogator, Matthew Alexander, has argued that the abusive interrogation techniques the administration approved didn't make us safer, they actually cost American lives.
Scott Horton in Harper's Magazine takes the argument one step further by characterizing the Bush administration as "The Torture Presidency". Glenn Greenwald in Salon examines the number of detainees who died of "heart attacks" and concludes that,
There are countless...episodes...of human beings in American custody dying because of the mistreatment -- authorized by Bush, Rumsfeld and others -- to which we subjected them. These are murders and war crimes in every sense of the word. That the highest level Bush officials and the President himself are responsible for the policies that spawned these crimes against humanity
There are those who see the vice president's admission as part of a strategy to force the president to pardon him and all those named in the Senate Report: Rumsfeld, Meyers, and Rice. If Bush doesn't pardon them, they will certainly be pursued by those in the new administration who will not let-bygones-be-bygone.
Since Bush has been famously reticent to grant pardons both as governor and president, then Cheney's ABC interview with Jonathan Karl is a way of provoking Bush to act while he still can. If Cheney is pardoned then he'll have it both ways: maintaining that what was done was legal and being protected from prosecution.