Vice President Dick Cheney was on American television last weekend to say that he directly approved CIA torture of American prisoners, and that he favors keeping the Guantanamo prison camp open until “the end of the war on terror,” a date which “nobody can specify.”

Those of Cheney’s persuasion are trying to convince Barack Obama that “realism” requires continued torture and the offshore prison system by which, under George W. Bush and Cheney, the United States took up the precedent and practices of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and other criminal regimes that gave the 20th century its reputation for moral depravity.

Pleas are beginning to appear in the American press in support of torture. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now with the “Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies,” writes (in The New York Times and International Herald Tribune) that such practices are essential to “stopping the slaughter of civilians by Islamic holy warriors” and dealing with “ticking bomb situations” where water-boarding the enemy “mastermind” can save “thousands of civilians.” Extrajudicial rendition to client-nation torturers, he says, has the advantage of keeping illegal practices out of sight, and away “from Congressional prying.”

Another man who has addressed the question is Philip Bobbitt, a law professor at Columbia University, former official of the National Security Council and author of a book published earlier this year, “Terror and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century.”

He argues that a radically new international situation exists in which the market is replacing the state as we have known it (a judgment he might today wish to revise?). This benefits the terrorist who operates without frontiers. To deal with such terrorists, “extreme” measures of coercion may be necessary, as well as global “preclusive” interventions to protect civilians and smash terrorist groups, with a legalized “total information awareness” program providing America with unlimited access to international communications.

His position on torture is that it should be applied only after a warrant has been obtained from the courts that cites necessity — raison d’etat. He foresees the need for an extensive reordering of American and international law concerning civil liberties, and a large new grant of power to the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz also advocates the issuance of torture warrants when there is an “absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives, coupled with probable cause that the suspect has such information and is unwilling to reveal it.”

According to his personal Web site, he is in principle opposed to torture but argues that authorities should be permitted to use nonlethal torture in a “ticking-bomb” scenario, regardless of international legal prohibitions, as it would be less destructive to the rule of law than to leave such matters to the discretion of law enforcement agents.

“If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, [then] it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice.”

The case for torture always rests on the “ticking-bomb” case. The argument is always that torture is the “only way” to save the city from the nuclear explosion, the tens of thousands of “innocent civilians,” or the kindergarten where your own child is playing, from being killed. The “ticking-bomb/only way” argument has been described as the card shark’s “forcing” onto his victim the card he wants him to select.

From what we know about CIA and American-outsourced torture in the Bush administration, there must have been a lot of ticking bombs in recent years. (Would they have ticked slowly enough for professors Dershowitz or Bobbitt to get their warrants?)

The argument always ignores the point repeatedly made by FBI and police officials, and other professional interrogators: that professional techniques of crisis negotiation, dealing with hostage-takers, and criminal investigation have been proved beyond doubt superior to torture in obtaining serious information. Torture produces lies, fabulation, telling the torturer whatever he wants.

It corrupts the torturers and their superiors, as well as the legal and intelligence systems involved.

It also ignores the possibility that if someone has been determined and clever enough to plant a nuclear weapon or anthrax bomb or doomsday machine in the middle of Washington, he might be sufficiently committed to endure some “nonlethal” torture for the cause. It’s the serious terrorist’s professional hazard. And if the bomb is indeed ticking, he (or she) will soon be put out of misery, together with the torturers.

There is a sense in which this simply is not a serious argument.

George W. Bush’s war against terror has brought out of the darker places in America a lot of people who want to torture, or like the idea of it. By now we know the names of the principal such figures in the Bush administration, even without the benefit of Dick Cheney on television or the bipartisan Senate report, just made known.

If these are the kind of people who remain in charge, the United States will earn its permanent place in history as the kind of nation that tortures people.

The country used to be governed by a different class of people. It seems reasonable to hope that in Barack Obama the United States has elected president someone who belongs to the category of people who have the values of that other America.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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