In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross last week, Seymour Hersh stated that Vice President Dick Cheney had “salted” the military and national security apparatus with trusted associates who were able to report back to him on what was going on. Hersh goes on to state that he thinks Cheney’s ability to influence or direct policy is limited. Still, keeping that in mind it’s interesting to watch the unfolding debate over the release of the torture memoranda.
In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel was slated to release four closely guarded memoranda created by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Stephen Bradbury addressing the use of specific torture techniques including waterboarding, holding prisoners in close confinement (in coffin-like conditions), and “head smacking.” Attorney General Holder had cleared the release; it was set for last Thursday. Then something happened. Newsweek’s Mike Isikoff quotes a source close to the issue stating that “Holy hell has broken loose over this.” While the Obama lawyers thought the matter was settled, John O. Brennan—the man Obama once hoped to appoint to head the CIA before a public firestorm erupted over his continuing embrace of torture techniques—launched a rearguard action designed to overcome the decision at Justice. Brennan argued that disclosure of the memos would be harmful because it would “embarrass” and “shame” CIA officers who had used the techniques. That claim is certainly very doubtful, since there are at least as many CIA operatives who have publicly advocated disclosure as oppose it. He also argued that it would be bad policy to disclose techniques used.
In fact, of course, the argument against disclosure is absurd. The techniques are well-documented and known to the public. The publication just two weeks ago of extended excerpts from the Red Cross’s report on treatment of CIA prisoners charted and graphically described the techniques used. Brennan’s motivation in opposing the disclosure has two possible bases: a desire to be able to continue to use the techniques in the future, and concern about a formal inquiry into the Bush-era torture regime. Release of the new OLC memoranda is certain to fuel public and Congressional demands for such an inquiry—which former Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated last week he felt was certainly on the horizon. And any formal inquiry is certain in turn to drive demands for accountability, including the prospect of criminal prosecutions.
Brennan is a protege of former CIA director George Tenet and although he expressed some reservations about waterboarding, he was a defender of other Tenet-era torture programs. Now ensconced as a senior counterterrorism advisor, he has become the principle advocate of the “don’t look back” mantra with respect to the misdeeds of the Bush years. And in this, Brennan’s principal concern is the protection of Brennan and Tenet–but in the process he has emerged as Dick Cheney’s clear champion.
The disclosure of the OLC memoranda presents a key policy fork in the road for Obama. If he is faithful to his commitment to transparency and to end torture, the government will have to come clean with these memos. If Obama keeps them under wraps, the public will have good reason to question his undertaking to end torture–and good reason to question whether a Cheney “shadow administration” actually has the power to influence policy.