Scream 4: Cheney Returns

Horror movies usually follow the same script. The monster - whether genetically modified, abused as a child, or flown in from Alpha Centauri - picks off the frightened teenagers one by one. After many thrills and chills, the hero drives a stake through the heart of the beast. Finally, just as we're finishing off the last of our popcorn in relief, the not-quite-dead monster makes one last attempt to dispatch the hero. It fails, but not before we've dumped popcorn all over our laps.

If Wes Craven decided to make a horror movie out of the last year of U.S. politics, he would definitely cast Dick Cheney as the monster that can't be silenced. The former vice president is Leatherface, Jason, and Freddie Krueger all rolled into one: lawless, methodical, and unpredictable with firearms. He's had more sequels than Chucky: White House chief of staff, House minority whip, secretary of defense, CEO of Halliburton, vice president, and now rogue pundit.

In the last presidential elections, the voters repudiated the Cheney legacy. But like Glenn Close in her final scene in Fatal Attraction, Cheney's not yet down for the ten-count. As the various TV appearances and his speech last week at the conservative thinktank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) suggest, he's still got some fight in him.

Frankly, Barton Gellman's book Angler should have KO'd the man politically. Here's a guy who not only stage-managed the vice-presidential search for George W. Bush and then took the position himself but also extracted confidential information during the search process that he subsequently used against his potential adversaries. Here's a guy who assembled the crack legal team - or was it a legal team on crack? - that provided the constitutional argument for expanding executive power, upending domestic and international law, and justifying torture. Here's a guy who created a real Secret Team inside the Bush administration that bypassed the State Department, Congress, and all normal procedures.

And yet, like Nixon emerging from the grave of Watergate, Cheney has sought to rebuild his reputation as the national security conscience of his party. "On the question of so-called torture, we don't do torture," he argued in a December interview on ABC. "We never have." He defended the intelligence data that the administration cooked in order to persuade the country to go to war against Iraq. He declared the "global war on terror" still on and Guantanamo still indispensable.

But last week, he went further. At AEI, he attacked The New York Times for uncovering his secret surveillance program that collected untold amount of information about U.S. citizens and should have outraged every privacy-minded conservative in the country. He argued that "enhanced interrogation techniques" provided critical information that prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. He warned the Obama administration of closing Guantanamo and bringing terrorists "inside the United States" as though the president were about to release them on the streets of New York. It was a speech, to quote Cheney himself, that reeked of "recklessness cloaked in righteousness."

The AEI speech, like Cheney's performance as vice president, was rife with misstatements and calculated distortions. As journalists Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel point out, the CIA inspector general, FBI director, and director of national intelligence all concur that there is no proof that the information gained through torture thwarted any attacks. The Abu Ghraib abuses were not, as Cheney claimed, the result of a few sadistic guards but the result of orders from top administration officials. Most of those detained in Guantanamo have not been "ruthless enemies of this country" but innocent people or low-level combatants without any valuable intelligence.

If you don't believe journalists - because, as Cheney implies, they don't have the best interests of the country at heart - consider the perspective of the chief U.S. interrogator in Iraq, Matthew Alexander. "Torture and abuse became Al Qaida's number one recruiting tool and cost us American lives," Alexander writes. "Our greatest success in this conflict was achieved without torture or abuse. My interrogation team found Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq and murderer of tens of thousands. We did this using relationship-building approaches and non-coercive law enforcement techniques."

Of course, Dick Cheney has never been particularly interested in the truth. He wants to achieve his goals. And it appears that he is having some effect.

By rallying the conservative forces and putting pressure on invertebrate Democrats, Cheney has influenced national policy. The Senate refused to appropriate money for the closure of Guantanamo and the transfer of the prisoners. The president has refused to support a truth commission. More ominously, the Obama administration is now working out its own policy of "preventive detention" - indefinitely holding people that can't be charged and tried in U.S. courts - that violates fundamental American legal principles. In his speech at the National Archives last week, Obama defended his important departures from Bush-era policy (end of torture, closure of Guantanamo) but also showed the influence of Cheney in his emphasis on war, "taking the fight to the extremists," and military commissions.

Liberal commentators have generally been enthusiastic about Obama's caution. Just check out The Washington Post's liberal stable: David Broder praised Obama and Cheney for both opposing a truth commission; "Obama has mostly called it right," observes Ruth Marcus; and E.J. Dionne, Jr. is delighted at the resurrection of cold war liberalism. Cheney makes Obama look good. But he also pulls the president further to the right.

Dick Cheney is not just fighting for his principles. He is fighting for his career and those of the team that bent the Constitution to their will. No one expects that the villains in horror movies will observe Marquess of Queensbury rules. The same applies to the former vice president. Expect more down-and-dirty fighting from Dick Cheney. This is one nightmare from which we haven't quite woken up.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus where you can read the full post.

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