Those of us who dwell in the real world tend to accept information at face value. This puts us at a constant disadvantage when dealing with the duplicitous minds of the Bush Administration, who hide layers of meaning and subtext beneath every carefully chosen phrase. When we refer to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, for example, we are usually addressing the history of slavery in the United States and the terrible choices that led to the Civil War. When President Bush talks about this infamous 19th Century case, on the other hand, he is clandestinely signaling his opposition to abortion to fanatical followers on the religious right.
This past weekend a former CIA agent named John Kiriakou seemed to blow the whistle on the use of waterboarding by government interrogators against al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubayda. Kiriakou told reporters that he had, over time, reached the conclusion that simulated drowning was, in fact, torture. Further, he intimated that the decision to waterboard originated not with some rogue operatives, but in the White House itself. In his own defense, however, he offered the opinion that the brutal interrogation of Zubayda had led directly to the capture of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and almost certainly, in his view, "saved lives".
In the immediate aftermath of these comments, progressives were buoyed. Finally, a credible witness had come forward to confirm that waterboarding had taken place, that it was torture, and that responsibility for the practice originated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The smoking gun, to mix a metaphor, had been found in the dunking pool. What little moral authority still attached itself to the Bush presidency would presumably vanish once and for all.
Almost nobody considered the possibility that Kiriakou's claims, while apparently damning, might have actually played directly into the administration's damage control strategy. The former agent's statements about waterboarding and torture, after all, were hardly wounding. After months of suggestive reports, few Americans doubt that at least some prisoners have been subjected to simulated drowning. Further, the brutality of the technique has already received a great deal of attention in the popular press. While Kiriakou's allegations may have been confirmatory, it seems unlikely that they moved the debate to any measurable degree.
On the other hand, the ex-spook's tales of torture did perform one very important service for the Bushies. Kiriakou provided more or less official confirmation of the use of waterboarding without the White House having to admit anything. The story is now out in the open, leaving little else to say. In the hyperactive calendar of politics, December's revelation becomes January's ancient history.
Better still, Kiriakou's admission potentially blunts the impact of the scandal involving the destruction of the CIA's interrogation tapes. Not only has media attention shifted ever so slightly away from the tale of the tapes, but the former agent has also implicitly supplied an argument that the lost evidence is no longer important: if the use and brutality of waterboarding are now a matter of public record, then the tapes possess little remaining probative value.
And what about the supposedly devastating claim that enhanced interrogation was authorized directly by the White House? Shockingly enough, even that may actually redound to the administration's benefit. First, Kiriakou did not reveal the precise identity of the West Wing Torquemada, giving Bush and the gang plausible deniability.
Second, and more important, the former spy went to great pains to point out that every instance of waterboarding required formal White House approval and that such occurrences were both rare and limited to a very small number of high value targets. "This isn't," Kiriakou said, "something done willy nilly". Instead, he suggested, these interrogations were treated with grave deliberation by all parties involved. This was no out of control band of cowboys, but rather a collection of sober men making tough decisions in the best interests of public safety and national security.
Is it any wonder, then, that little condemnation of Kiriakou has been forthcoming from the Bushies? He may or may not have been operating on their behalf, but he was very much acting in their interests. In terms of spinning a torture scandal, it's hard to do better than this.
Putting the pieces together suggests a picture that could have been painted by the president's own PR staff. Agents catch a suspect with close ties to the murderers of September 11. The suspect refuses to talk, and the CIA asks permission to employ harsh interrogation techniques. The Bush administration, eager to protect against the next catastrophe, reluctantly consents, but limits the scope of this action to only most extreme cases by requiring the agency to secure permission every time a detainee is to be waterboarded. As a result, Zubayda cracks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is apprehended, and dozens of evil plots are aborted, saving countless innocent lives.
Viewers of the regrettable television series "24" will recognize this as the ticking time bomb scenario. Terrorists, who had already killed 3,000 Americans, threatened imminent violence and death. Tough minded policy makers took on the unsavory but necessary task of forcing the bad guys to talk before further attacks could be carried out. Thanks to waterboarding, a terrible but effective interrogation technique, further outrages were stopped just in the nick of time.
This is, sadly, an interpretation that appeals to millions of our fellow citizens. Whether or not they buy it in this particular case, of course, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, John Kiriakou's revelations, far from damaging the White House, actually dovetailed remarkably well with the Bush administration's preferred story line.
And if some of the slower Bush supporters have not yet connected the dots, there's always help from one of Fox News's limitless stable of empty blonde skulls. This one is dismissing a viewer named Jim who argued that "people who torture or condone it defame America". Responded the "reporter":
"Jim, bottom line, though, three terrorists water-boarded for less than two minutes or so. That's what's this torture controversy is all about. Plus, it worked."
So much for "we don't torture".