Road Map: Torture Is Democrats’ Unwanted Distraction

Posted April 27, 2009 at 6:38pm

The constant drip, drip of information about alleged torture under the direction of the George W. Bush administration may slowly drive Democrats crazy.

[IMGCAP(1)]On the one hand, the liberal base is fired up and out for the blood of Bush administration officials. But on the other hand, the Republican base has become agitated, too, and the topic threatens to eclipse all those other big things — health care and climate change and more “economic recovery— stuff —that Democrats hope to do.

“You do not want this to become all-consuming,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “It could sap political will to push a monumental task like health care.—

So far, however, Democrats say the flap has been manageable.

“It’s been a second-tier story and a second-tier distraction,— another knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said. “It hasn’t really distracted us from the budget, health care or the economy, but if it keeps escalating, it does have the potential to be a much bigger distraction.—

President Barack Obama has sought unsuccessfully to quell the partisan fight. After all, it was Obama who — perhaps unintentionally — fanned the flames by releasing the Bush Justice Department memos used to justify harsh interrogation tactics and then appeared inconsistent on who he believes should or should not be prosecuted for authorizing those tactics.

“I think the president had great fears that the debate that you’ve seen happen in this town on each side of this issue, at the extremes, has — that’s taken place would be what would envelop any commission that looked backward,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on NBC’s “Meet the Press— on Sunday.

Despite promising to look forward, the Obama administration arguably created this diversion for Democrats by releasing the Bush-era memos that served as legal cover for those employing harsh interrogation methods against detainees in the war on terror.

That was followed by a declassified Senate Armed Services Committee report on severe detainee treatment and a Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing the timeline of how the use of waterboarding and other techniques that have historically been considered torture were approved.

“It’s hard to do only a little bit of disclosure,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said. “The right wants more disclosure because they want to be vindicated, and the left wants more disclosure because they want more answers.—

And it seems that they may both get that in due time.

Within a month, the Pentagon is set to release more pictures showing the abusive treatment of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and within the next couple of months, DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility is set to make public its review of the ethical conduct of the lawyers who wrote the original legal cover memos. The House Judiciary Committee has already begun planning for hearings, and the Senate Intelligence Committee is likely to release a report by the end of the year on how each “high value— detainee was questioned.

With the limited information currently available, the heated back-and-forth has already drawn in heavy hitters on both the right and the left.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney — who many assume spearheaded the push for “enhanced interrogations— — has been calling for the CIA to release information on how effective the Bush administration’s techniques were in preventing more terrorist attacks following 9/11. That elicited a response from a longtime Cheney foe, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), that “if he feels this strongly about it, feel free to come before my committee under oath and let us ask him some questions.—

But both the White House and Senate Democratic leaders appear to have settled on pursuing a course that provides the least new information — waiting six to eight months for the Senate Intelligence panel to complete its closed-door, classified review. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), of course, is embroiled in her own sideshow over what she was briefed on in 2002 and what she did or didn’t object to at the time. She was ranking member on the House Intelligence panel back then.

With the White House underestimating the uproar and bumbling its attempts to craft a coherent message on what to do with the wealth of information trickling out, Republicans have pounced.

Despite their own muddied message that skirts the question of whether detainees were actually tortured, GOP leaders are thoroughly enjoying seeing the Democrats tied in knots over the issue.

One senior Senate GOP aide acknowledged that Republicans “are uneasy about the subject in general, but at this stage in the game, it’s inflicting a lot more damage on the left.—

Indeed, the Republicans were already tarred by the torture issue when Bush was in office and revelations about the techniques used were leaked to the media.

Plus, the debate gives Republicans a launching pad for a broader message on national security, considering they see the release of the information as a sop to the civil libertarians in the Democratic Party.

“They have made a lot of political decisions without an overall strategy to make America safe,— one senior House Republican aide said. “From a national security perspective, that is an area where Democrats are weaker than Republicans, and we’re happy to have that debate.—

House Republicans continue to stoke the fire under Pelosi by calling for more information on what she knew, when she knew it and why, if she opposes these methods, she didn’t say so when she first found out.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday joined House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) in calling on the CIA to release the detailed notes taken by its officials at the 2002 briefing in which Pelosi was reportedly told about varying interrogation techniques the Bush administration planned to use.

“Congress and the American people deserve a full and complete set of facts about what information was yielded by CIA’s interrogation program, and they deserve to know which of their representatives in Congress were briefed about these techniques and the extent of those briefings,— Boehner said in a statement.