Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2009

MORAL RELATIVISM, CONSERVATIVE STYLE.... Mid-way through the "Fox News Sunday" interview, host Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney if he's comfortable with intelligence officials exceeding "legal authorization" to try to obtain information from a detainee. The former vice president said, "I am."

And that, in a nutshell, is all one really needs to know about Dick Cheney. The law should be followed, except when it shouldn't. And when the law isn't followed, the only real outrage would be an effort to hold alleged criminals responsible for their conduct. Think conservatism is about moral absolutes, and stark lines separating right from wrong? Think again.

Michael Scherer noted, "There is not much nuance there.... One CIA contractor, according to the CIA Inspector General, is alleged to have beaten an Afghan detainee to death with a large metal flashlight and his foot. Released criminal records show that another CIA employee was interrogating a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in a stress position with a bag over his head, when the detainee died of asphyxiation. Assuming that Cheney did not misspeak, his statement to Wallace suggests that he believes these deaths are "OK' given the circumstances."

Asked, in the same interview, whether he would cooperate if sought out by federal investigators conducting a criminal investigation, Cheney said, "It will depend on the circumstances." (The former vice president may refuse to cooperate with the Justice Department?) Cheney also argued that the attorney general is a "political appointee," who should base prosecutorial decisions on the political wishes of the president. Seriously.

Aside from Cheney's crass partisanship and craven support for torture, why is he constantly in the public eye, making this case? I think publius had a good item on this.

To me, the goal of his recent charm offensive is simply to kick up enough dirt to force a "draw." That is, he wants to politicize the torture debate as much as possible -- to transform a profound debate about our country's values into just another everyday Republican/Democratic partisan squabble that makes people throw up their hands and despair of knowing "the truth."

If you've noticed, Cheney tends to pop up in the aftermath of damning evidence. We just (re)learned, for instance, that our CIA agents murdered detainees, choked them, and threatened to rape their wives. Normally, you would think these revelations would give pause to even the most ardent Cheney supporters.

But then Cheney comes along, and tries to reframe the whole story. His intended audience isn't the nation as a whole, but conservatives. He wants to make sure that they view these stories through partisan-tinted lenses. [...]

In short, Cheney wants to transform what should a broad consensus against torture into a "he said/she said" partisan squabble. And if most conservative blogs are any guide, he's probably been successful.

One last thought. Early on in the interview, Cheney insisted that the Justice Department's interest in illegal interrogation tactics is "clearly a political move." The former VP added, "I mean, there's no other rationale for why they're doing this."

"No other rationale"? How about the existence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, brought to the attention of the Justice Department? Isn't that a "rationale" for a prosecutor?

I honestly don't get the "political move" argument. Indeed, it seems backwards. If Eric Holder had decided to go pursue Cheney, Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Gonzales, it'd be easier to understand the complaints. They'd be wrong, but the allegations would at least be coherent. In this case, though, the "political move" would be to ignore alleged crimes for the sake of political expedience.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Could someone please come up with the video of the interview that Bush did with Al Arabiya network - where he stated that only dictators do not investigate torture - the US government WILL!!!!!!

Posted by: JS on August 31, 2009 at 8:10 AM | PERMALINK

It's really difficult to understand why a cowardly VP who hid out for most of eight years in various undisclosed locations would suddenly be given a weekly forum to trash the current President and Justice Department. What's next? If they're going to have Cheney and his daughter, they should give Charles Manson and Squeaky a regular spot as well.

Posted by: Capt Kirk on August 31, 2009 at 8:10 AM | PERMALINK

Please refer to Steve Benen's comments on Library Grape = about the Bush interview on Al Arabiya.

Posted by: JS on August 31, 2009 at 8:15 AM | PERMALINK

There's a language problem here. Normal humans think "moral relativism" means that the morality of an action depends on the circumstances that surround it.

To a rightwinger, "moral relativism" means acknowledging that to the rest of the world, US actions appear immoral. Since the USA is morally superior in an absolute sense, such perspectives, even recognizing such perspectives, are not only wrong but serve the cause of evil.

Posted by: Boronx on August 31, 2009 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

There may be a large element of self-protection here as well, as many have pointed out. The claim that this is entirely political doesn't make sense. To what end? -- it's not really an argument because Cheney doesn't actually provide a rationale. But the claim is better laid down now, at the beginning, just in case later the actions of the people in charge actually do come under investigation.

Posted by: larry birnbaum on August 31, 2009 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

To quote Cheney himself "So?" Who gives a fuck what Cheney thinks about anything. Go back to yer hole Cheney and may the investigation wind it's way back to you. You will not be able to say "I was only following orders" You gave the orders.

Posted by: John R on August 31, 2009 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

What a loathsome specimen. Send him back to the hole he crawled out of.

Posted by: CWC on August 31, 2009 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Yesterday, "mini-cheney" argued once again that waterboarding was not torture and that there was a double jeopardy issue in pursuing these guys. I am unaware of any previous indictment or trial involving these guys. They are throwing out this "double jeopardy" argument that is catching on, I have now heard it several times. Both Cheneys lie and the conservatives eat it up.

Posted by: Bonny on August 31, 2009 at 8:26 AM | PERMALINK

All you have to remember is this: President Clinton lied about getting a GD'd blowjob from a consenting female adult. Yes, the President got a hum job from someone who was not his wife & he lied about it under oath. It was a cause for impeachment, for televised hearings, all to "save the Constitution & the rule of law" (I'm paraphrasing). What's good for the goose is NOT what's good for the gander.

Posted by: Flounder on August 31, 2009 at 8:27 AM | PERMALINK

The question I would love to ask torture apologists:

If the mother of an Afghan detainee who died under US torture came to the US, got a gun and shot Dick Cheney dead, would you support quietly sending her home so as not to divide our country or reveal our secrets to our enemies, as a murder trial would surely do?

Posted by: hells littlest angel on August 31, 2009 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

publius says: [Cheney's] intended audience isn't the nation as a whole, but conservatives.

I expect his core audience is also guys like Broder and Hiatt and Ignatius. As long as the Village isn't going to unite in condemnation of his actions, Cheney probably figures he can continue to show up on the Sunday talk shows indefinitely to continue muddying the waters.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on August 31, 2009 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

Sadly, a significant portion of the American public sees no point in prosecuting these crimes, with or without damage control. Chalk that up to the media etc. etc.

If Watergate had happened 30 years later, right now Nixon would be taking to the airwaves after enjoying a second full term. He'd be saying "Listen to the tapes. They fully exonerate me..."

Posted by: Chris S. on August 31, 2009 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

If I were a lawyer from Hell (but I repeat myself), I'd say that liberals only consider the virtues of moral relativism, civil disobedience and "answering to a Higher Power" when they happen to agree with the cause.

Posted by: converse on August 31, 2009 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

Remember the old days when conservatives could argue for hours against "situational ethics"? Ahhh, good times.

BTW, mention to publius that Cheney is totally incapable of a "charm" offensive.

Posted by: martin on August 31, 2009 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota said...that we should "thank God" that Sarah Palin wrote about "death panels."

I see: Christians should thank God for those who bear false witness.

Maybe someone should nail a copy of the Ten Commandments to Bachmann's door, with #9 highlighted.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on August 31, 2009 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Where is the indictment for Cheney?

Posted by: MLJohnston on August 31, 2009 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

Cheney's a schmuck! Charge him with crimes against the Constitution, crimes against aggressive war, and investigate his oil connections in Central Asia! Put him in the public docket! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on August 31, 2009 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

god damn dick cheney's shit-filled soul to hell.

Posted by: neill on August 31, 2009 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

There does seem to be a point of no return , the point where you awaken a dragon . All the sleepy courtiers , and all the kings horses busily fawning upon sweet chainie crumbs in the service of great dark lumbering one . Being conservatively comforted , the decay of a peaceful perch will feel no different from their rapidly (9.81ms2) approaching graves , the rotting purchase of chainie's corpse an eternal gift .

Posted by: FRP on August 31, 2009 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Imagine you're innocent of any wrongdoing, not linked to any terrorists, not at all involved in any way with a plot or actions against the U.S. You're captured, tortured, killed. What is the penalty for killing an innocent person? Conservatives suggest there should be no penalty. And they wail about the heavy hand of government intruding on their lives? You can't get much more heavy handed than beating an innocent person to death. Literally heavy handed. The attitude of Cheney and his ilk tells you everything you need to know about modern conservatism. It is every bit as dangerous as the thuggery Stalin let loose on his lands.

Posted by: steve duncan on August 31, 2009 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

We know that radical conservatives believe in "law and order" since nothing pleases them more than putting "undesirables" behind bars. But the more important question -- and I ask this in all seriousness and sincerity: Do conservatives believe in Rule of Law.

It took thousands of years before Rule of Law -- the idea that no man, not even the king, is above the law -- became the accepted means for organizing and governing the state. Bloody civil wars were fought in order to make absolutist monarchs who governed by whim and drew their legitimacy from Divine Right to subject themselves to the revolutionary idea that all men were equal before the law. And we know from history that equality before the law goes against every grain of conservative thinking -- which loves its hierarchies, its authoritarian leaders, its "Deciders" unencumbered by regulation and due process -- whether these strong chief executives are the generals of its armies, the CEOs of its corporations and business enterprises, the Popes and preachers of its churches, the strict fathers who are kings in their own castles, or the emperors, kings and presidents of the state.

Rule of Law is under assault in Washington today. Just yesterday, Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, wrote a column that captured this dangerous new "inside the Beltway" conventional wisdom -- one in which Rule of Law is seen as inoperative in the one area where it is most important: The governing of this nation.

Here is what Hiatt said: "On the one hand, this is a nation of laws. If torture violates U.S. law -- and it does -- and if Americans engaged in torture -- and they did -- that cannot be ignored, forgotten, swept away. When other nations violate human rights, the United States objects and insists on some accounting. It can't ask less of itself.

"Yet this is also a nation where two political parties compete civilly and alternate power peacefully. Regimes do not seek vengeance, through the courts or otherwise, as they succeed each other. Were Obama to criminally investigate his predecessor for what George W. Bush believed to be decisions made in the national interest, it could trigger a debilitating, unending cycle."

What Hiatt seems to be saying is that real democracy -- which is government under law -- will make the price for political defeat so precarious for our political leaders that in order to prevent civil war every four years when power is up for grabs we must reassure our ruling elites that they will never, ever be held accountable for their law-breaking while in office. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like democracy to me.

Scooter Libby was convinced fairly by a jury of his peers for violating the laws and for helping to disclose, for political reasons, the identity of an undercover CIA operative, thus undermining the national security. President Bush immediately commuted Libby's 30 years sentance with the rationalization that Libby had violated the law in good faith, as a good and loyal soldier, who was merely carrying out the equally arbitrary and unlawful directives of his thoroughly lawless and authoritarian boss, Dick Cheney.

And what did our "law and order" conservatives have to say about this -- the ones who are so quick to attack liberals for caring more for the civil rights of terrorists than the security of this country. Their only complaint was that Bush hadn't gone far enough and given Libby a full pardon.

American democracy is at risk. It is being attacked from a newly emergent right wing governing class that feels it has the right and obligation to break the law whenever it sees fit. And this assault is being rationalized and faciliated by liberals who lack the guts to fight back.

Posted by: Ted Frier on August 31, 2009 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

All of it was OK because everyone the CIA interrogated was known to be guilty before the torture started. So much easier to know that when you don't have to try and deal with that messy habeas corpus crap.

Posted by: dweb on August 31, 2009 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

Cheney's government - and, let's face it, that's what it was - attracted and rewarded the human element who had always wanted to know what it would be like to kill another person. The Cheney government then facilitated opportunities to do so at no personal risk to the killer - bound and weaponless detainee who couldn't defend himself, slobbering mob of retards back home yelling for more and more blood, a vice-president who decided what the law would be and to whom it would apply.

And all those people - minus the hapless detainee, of course, are walking around free right now, enjoying the comforts of the richest country on the planet. How's that feel? Still wondering why they hate you? I think they're amazingly tolerant, under the circumstances. Only four contractors got hung from that bridge in Fallujah. I'd expect to see a long line of heads on sticks.

Posted by: Mark on August 31, 2009 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

The galling thing is, he's getting away with this because no one in the media's asking any real questions. "Hey, Dick, what about the guy who beat someone to death with a flashlight? There's no rationale for investigating that?". Very simple questions, ones that you and I will never have the opportunity to ask, and yet ones that will never be asked by those who can and should.

Posted by: Kevin Ray on August 31, 2009 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

"(The former vice president may refuse to cooperate with the Justice Department?)"

Yes, he can.
The g-d piece of paper decried by George W. Bush says so. It is frequently the salvation of many guilty parties.

It's just a bit surprising to hear Cheney admit he'd need this protection.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on August 31, 2009 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Cheney's comments in this interview went well beyond his normal range of partisan snarling and dust-flinging. As I pointed out last Friday at Unbossed, in a preview of the interview, Cheney is sticking his neck way out by defending even the interrogators who violated the rules. This just days after the scandalous revelations of the CIA IG report. The best explanation is that Cheney fears that any investigation of the outer edges of CIA law-breaking will lead back to him eventually.


Posted by: smintheus on August 31, 2009 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Cheney seems to see no problem with killing a million Iraqis in pursuit of an unnecessary war over non-existent WMDs, Sadam, and Al Qeda who just happened to be in Afganistan when he and Bush got their war rolling. Why should waterboarding, threats with electric drills and rape and killing family members phase the SOB? Oh, and occasionally killing a detainee in the process. In his mind, I'm sure that Laws are for the Little People, not patriotic leaders like him who see the greater good in breaking them. He really is quite a vile man.

Posted by: sparrow on August 31, 2009 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

“The president is the chief law enforcement officer in the administration,” Cheney said.

Not only has Dick "Dick" Cheney forgotten everything he learned in kindergarten, the neural damage has now spread to his memories from elementary school civics class.

The United States Attorney General is the head of the United States Department of Justice (see 28 U.S.C. § 503) concerned with legal affairs and is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government.

Posted by: melior on August 31, 2009 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

It's pretty simple, guys. Cheney said that torture was okay because the people being tortured were brown, Muslim, and getting in the way of his Halliburton stock rising 1/4 point. The right wing base agrees with him that it's okay to torture people who are brown, Muslim, and getting in the way of bringing about Armageddon.

You can't rationalize with people who believe that everyone not just like them is a subhuman and deserving of violence in the name of Jesus and Big Oil.

Posted by: Keori on August 31, 2009 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Wasn't Cheney, or his surrogate, Scooter, behind the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, for political purposes? I think this shows highly selective respect for the CIA, if any respect at all.
Wasn't Cheney largely the force behind deciding the Constitution was out of date, and needed updating by ignoring its provisions if he didn't feel they were important.
The basic idea of this being a nation of laws, not of men, seems to be lost on this man.
I tend to believe he really believes what he says. So do sociopaths (and no, I am not calling him one. It still doesn't make him right. The law decides.

Posted by: HP on August 31, 2009 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK
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