Angling for the Presidency.

Dick Cheney official photo

Dick Cheney official photo

In his inaugural column for the Times, Ross Douthat argues that Cheney should have run for president so that America could have had a stouter debate on torture during the campaign.  McCain couldn’t hold the pro-torture platform because he didn’t agree with the Bush/Cheney stand, and so the Bush/Cheney stand and the viability of their brand of conservatism could really only have been tested with a Cheney run. He doesn’t argue that Cheney would have been good for the country, but that the debate would have been.

. . .and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.

He wasn’t alone. A large swath of the political class wants to avoid the torture debate. The Obama administration backed into it last week, and obviously wants to back right out again.

But the argument isn’t going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just “look forward,” as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.

Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.

It’s an intriguing argument, but I’m not sure I buy it. First, you have to assume that the kind of debate would only have happened during the election, and that people hadn’t made a decision about torture based on what we knew about Abu Ghraib and waterboarding beforehand. You could argue that if the American people didn’t care then, they weren’t going to care during the campaign, when their home and 401(K) values began plunging. Or you could argue that the debate did happen in people’s families, homes and communities, and the Bush/Cheney torture policy was soundly rejected when Barack Obama won in November. Obama didn’t bring out those horrible photos, but he often spoke about the threat to civil liberties and our American ideals under a policy that condoned such activites and wiretapped it’s civilians and had “federal agents poking around in our libraries.” The election wasn’t just a defeat of McCain, but an overall rejection of the Republican party and the last eight years. And, in case you didn’t know, the previous eight years were run by the Cheney administration.

Which makes this a perfect time to tell you to read Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, the book Barton Gellman published after he and Jo Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for their series about Cheney for the Washington Post. Even if you read the series, the book contains revelations so astounding that you wonder if you ever know what’s going on in this country at all.

On giving exclusive authority to the Pentagon to decide which suspected terrorists to try with military tribunals, for example, Cheney, who “liked to remind the White House staff that ‘the president’s most precious commodity is his time,'” arranged a meeting with former Attorney General John Ashcroft and overruled his objections to tell him John Yoo had already recommended the Pentagon could do it.

Three days later, Cheney brought the order to lunch with the president. No one told Colin Powell or Condi Rice. No one told their lawyers. . .

Cheney emerged from lunch with a thumbs-up from the president. . .

In less than an hour, the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command. It changed hands four times, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review. Cheney’s days of ‘orderly paper flow,’ of shunning ‘by the way decisions,’ were long behind him.

After John Yoo, drafter of the executive authority and torture memos, quit the Office of Legal Counsel:

Jack Goldsmith, who now ran the Office of Legal Counsel, withdrew the second of Yoo’s main torture opinions in June. Repudiating a formal OLC ruling was akin to a reversal of precedent by the Supreme Court, except that the OLC had not done it before. Goldsmith was no liberal, and he was embarrassed, years later, when Bush administration critics adopted him as one of their own. . . .

And after the infamous visit to Ashcroft’s hospital bedside over the warrantless-wiretapping program, which his Deputy, James Comey, disagreed with, all hell began to break loose at the Justice Department, which was refusing to reauthorize it. Comey and several others threatened to resign, and Comey said in a letter that “I and the Department of Justice have been asked to be part of something that is fundamentally wrong.”

After a meeting, Bush pulled Comey aside.

Bush shifted direction, playing for time. Then he said something that floored Comey.

‘I just wish you weren’t raising this at the last minute.’

The last minute! He didn’t know.

The president said a few more words. Not the way it’s supposed to work, popping up with news like this. The day before a deadline?

Wednesday. He didn’t know until Wednesday. No wonder Card and Gonzales went to the hospital.

‘Oh, Mr. President, if you’ve been told that, you have been very poorly served by your advisors,’ Comey said. ‘We have been telling them for months we have a huge problem here that we can’t get past. We’ve been working this and working this, and here I am, and there’s no place else for me to go.’

‘I just need you to certify it. Give me six weeks. If we don’t have it fixed in six weeks, we’ll shut it down.’

‘I can’t do that,’ Comey said. ‘You do say what the law is in the executive branch, I believe that. And people’s job, if they’re going to stay in the executive branch, is to follow that. But I can’t agree, and I’m just sorry.’