Lighting the match

December 21, 2007

We know that puff of smoke coming from Vice President Dick Cheney's ceremonial office on Wednesday couldn't have been from the destruction of more CIA videotapes, because it turned out that even David S. Addington, his fearsome chief of staff, had counseled the spy agency three years ago to be cautious about destroying the tapes it had. When the man known as "Cheney's Cheney" is concerned about sticking to the law, you have to wonder who at the CIA thought it was a good idea to go ahead and destroy this potential evidence anyway - and why.

Maybe someone at the vice president's office was trying to burn one of those many biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, who used to be such a hero to the current administration. President Roosevelt, it seems, was not so fond of waterboarding: When he found out that American soldiers who were fighting an insurrection in the Philippines were waterboarding their captives (they called it the "water cure" in those days, and they apparently learned it from the Spanish), he ordered the "inhuman" practice stopped, and then cashiered the commanding general. George J. Tenet, on the other hand, got the Medal of Freedom after he stepped down as head of the CIA.

For his actions, Teddy Roosevelt was cheered by both parties for upholding the nation's honor. President Bush finds his White House being drawn ever closer to cover-up inquiries, on the legal front and in the House of Representatives - despite the advice of Mr. Addington and others who wondered whether it was a good idea to destroy the videos.

It was good news this week that Michael B. Mukasey, the new attorney general, has sharply restricted contacts between the White House and the Justice Department over legal matters that touch on the executive branch.

We have argued before that the tapes would appear to present evidence of a crime, the torture of prisoners. But they could have had another role, as well: The waterboarding sessions that were recorded on them apparently elicited some of the information that is being held against inmates at Guantanamo. In a normal legal system, the tapes could have been powerful evidence for conviction - or for acquittal - of those prisoners. But with their destruction, there is even less hope that the horrible injustice of Guantanamo can ever be straightened out in a legitimate and legal fashion.

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