Asking The Wrong Guy

The Washington Post today explores what it describes as an increasingly lonely and quixotic attempt by Vice President Dick Cheney to keep the government’s standards of treatment for detainees and those under interrogation as flexible as possible.

And it’s not just a fight against Senator John McCain and his bill against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment anymore. No, now Cheney has to deal with Condoleezza Rice who, according to an anonymous official, thinks the standards supported by the administration since 9/11 are so loose that they are “hurting the president’s agenda and her agenda.” Rice has apparently even resorted to making sure she’s invited to all meetings on the subject.

The piece, by Post reporters Dana Priest and Robin Wright, describes Cheney as increasingly isolated and embattled, a “shrinking island” according to one State Department official. The loss of top aide Lewis Libby and the defection to the other side by a few key administration officials like Elliot Abrams, one of “the most hawkish voices in internal debates,” is proof, the Post writes, that Cheney is a lone wolf with no party, no administration, no Congress to back him on this.

But, we wonder, doesn’t Cheney work for someone?

The Post fails to mention the fact that if Cheney is persisting in this lonely campaign it’s because at the very least the president wants Cheney’s voice heard on the matter — as well as those of Rice, and of Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzalez, who, the article reports, are no longer “on the fence” on this issue and have moved into the Rice camp.

Which raises the obvious question: What does the boss, who will in the end mediate among quarreling advisers, think?

Speaking in Panama this morning, Bush seemed to make it clear: “There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. So you bet we will aggressively pursue them, but we will do so under the law. We do not torture.”

We need a clarification of terms here, it seems. Maybe the real question should be, what is the president’s definition of torture?

Andrew Sullivan puts it well: “The press must now ask the president: [D]oes he regard the repeated, forcible near-drowning of detainees to be torture? Does he believe that tying naked detainees up and leaving them outside all night to die of hypothermia is ‘torture’? Does he believe that beating the legs of a detainee until they are pulp and he dies is torture? Does he believe that beating detainees till they die is torture? Does he believe that using someone’s religious faith against them in interrogations is ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading’ treatment and thereby illegal? What is his definition of torture?”

Until those questions are actually posed by more reporters than just Sullivan, it looks like we’ll have to settle for more of the same — articles like the one in the Post, trying to parse the office intrigue of the president’s closest advisors, based on leaks and counter-leaks by various loyalists of one faction or another.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.