Bring It On

Our View: Despite The President's Misgivings, The Nation Seems Headed For An Emotional And Perhaps Bitter Partisan Debate Over The Bush-era Policy On Torture

April 22, 2009

For days now, President Barack Obama has been insisting that while he condemns the torture of terrorist suspects, he would not allow the prosecution of CIA personnel for acts that were considered legal under the Bush administration. The president clearly was walking a fine line in trying not to alienate an agency whose help he badly needs in defeating terrorism, and responding to demands of supporters for a full accounting of the mistreatment of prisoners documented in Justice Department memos released last week. The harsh interrogation techniques described in the four memos included exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, extreme physical violence and the simulated drowning technique known as water-boarding. The latter, in particular, has been designated a war crime by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

So perhaps it was inevitable the president's balancing act could not be sustained indefinitely. Despite an effort to put the issue behind him, Mr. Obama said Tuesday he won't rule out going after the government lawyers who crafted the legal rationale for the Bush administration's torture policy. Though he didn't say so, those arguments' specious reasoning and extreme interpretations make them laughable as serious jurisprudence. They also reveal their authors' total disregard for the law: Some of the methods they were approving are clear violations of U.S. and international law.

In response to a reporter's question, Mr. Obama said that, if necessary, Congress could create a bipartisan commission to figure out how things went so wrong. He left it to Attorney General Eric Holder to decide what to do about the lawyers responsible for the legal fiction that torture is OK.

Thus the stage now seems set for a showdown over the legacy of the Bush administration that, despite Mr. Obama's stated misgivings, threatens to break sharply along partisan lines. The battle already has been joined by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has called on the CIA to release memos he says prove that intelligence extracted from terrorist detainees by harsh methods prevented another attack on the U.S. after 9/11. Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, joined fellow Democrat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in calling for a commission to look into the matter.

With the economy ailing and unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not the debate the president wanted to see distract attention from his efforts on education, health care and energy. But Americans on both sides of the issue seem passionately engaged in this debate and believe that it's one we need to have.

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