Only a Torture Probe Will Do

Washington Matters

Only a Torture Probe Will Do

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Dick Cheney probably couldn't agree on the color of red clay, but they have made a virtually airtight case in favor of some sort of torture commission.

Pelosi's accusation that the CIA misled her and Cheney's insistence that what the administration did saved lives -- and numerous other questions about what actually happened, who approved it and under what legal authority -- make clear that too many facts are being misrepresented or played with for the public to get straight answers without a sober, nonpartisan investigation. Too much is at stake to leave things so murky.

The reputations and integrity of Pelosi and Cheney are both at stake, albeit Pelosi has more to lose since she is still a top leader -- second in line to the presidency, as a matter of fact. Pelosi is being accused of deliberately smearing the CIA for political purposes and some Republicans want an ethics probe. Cheney, too, is being accused of distorting facts and overstating the effectiveness of Bush administration's anti-terror efforts.

But Cheney and Pelosi, as individuals, are beside the point. It's the questions their assertions and the charges against them raise that merit serious and official attention. If Pelosi is telling the truth, then something went seriously wrong with how the CIA and other parts of the executive branch communicate with Congress -- and that something would need to be fixed. If she is lying -- and she certainly has been shifting positions -- the voters and her Democratic members need to know that.

When it comes to Cheney ... well, to be honest, there are so many questions about his role in the war on terror and interrogation policies and so many claims that can't be checked by anyone without a high security clearance that it would take too long to enumerate them. But the chief issues are Cheney's claims that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques were not torture and therefore not illegal and that those techniques produced actionable intelligence that saved American lives. These are not minor issues. In fact, they are at the very center of the debate and to leave them unexplored and the facts open to interpretation and shading would be an utter disservice to the country.

Cheney certainly appears to be on shaky ground when it comes to the legality. By all accounts, Cheney is relying upon legal judgments reached by Bush officials that have been widely criticized for being written solely to create torture loopholes. (And free-lancing torture by shipping suspects to other countries where torture is common is no better a legal dodge.) Some impartial body should listen carefully to Cheney and his critics and probe all the memos and related materials in order to make a sound but formal judgment about the appropriateness and legality of the actions taken. (Please notice, I said legality of actions, not the guilt or innocence of individuals. Prosecuting ex-government officials without extremely strong evidence of intentional lawbreaking simply holds too much potential for trouble and distraction when we have a plate full of far more serious issues.)

If the Cheney and Pelosi spectacles have made one thing clear it's that this country is still divided over the use of torture. An investigation could make it easier to reach an informed conclusion that might evolve into a national consensus. At least as important as the legality of torture is the question of whether it is effective. That may prove to be a difficult question to answer, but if so, that's important information. If the evidence is mixed, can it truly be regarded as effective and useful, especially given the cost to our global reputation and our own values?

There is evidence that intelligence provided under duress can be of questionable value or worse. One particularly disturbing accusation deserves scrutiny: that some high-value targets were tortured not to gain information about al Qaeda operations, but about alleged ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, claims that have since been debunked. Some intelligence from a source tortured in Egypt was used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his UN speech laying out the supposed connections linking Iraq, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Once out of Egypt, that source recanted and said he made the statements purely to make the torture stop.

Does the country want to even contemplate the possibility that a decision to wage a war that much of the public and many potential allies had serious doubts about was based, at least in part, on intelligence of such questionable provenance? That's a serious accusation that needs to be proven true or false.