If George W. Bush’s fervent insistence that his government did not engage in torture does not define and haunt him forever—like Richard Nixon insisting he was not a crook, or Bill Clinton denying he had sexual relations with that woman—it will only be for the paradoxical reason that he insisted as much too many times for any one clip to supply the iconic denial.
The Bush administration’s supporters, operating under the assumption that its most brutal “enhanced interrogation technique” was waterboarding, spent much of the past decade defending this singular practice. Waterboarding did not amount to torture, they insisted, because Navy SEALS allegedly undergo the same treatment as part of their training. Anyway, it happened just a handful of times. Marc Thiessen, the Bush administration’s torture point man, later insisted, “We waterboarded in the CIA—the CIA waterboarded three terrorists. Just three.”
The torture regimen turns out to have been carried out on a vastly broader and more depraved scale than the administration’s defenders, or even its critics, ever imagined. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, released this week, describes practices few conservative politicians or intellectuals had prepared themselves to justify. Men were shackled to walls or ceilings for days, in diapers, locked in coffins, rectally violated, subject to days of sleep deprivation, beaten, and (in one instance) murdered. Several intelligence staffers reported being traumatized by the experience.
That is more than one can say for the torture apologists. Having dug in to mount an extended, pointillistic defense of waterboarding, they have found their position suddenly overrun, and have retreated to new ground. “Every civilized nation agrees that torture is wrong,” Senator Ted Cruz complained after the report was released, but, “after six years, enough with saying ‘everything is George W. Bush’s fault.’ ” To Cruz and other Republicans still in office, the allegation that the Bush administration used torture had gone from outrageous smear to tired news without ever having passed through the stage of acceptable topic of discussion. Senator Marco Rubio insisted on Twitter, “Those who served us in aftermath of 9/11 deserve our thanks not one-sided partisan Senate report that now places American lives in danger.” Rubio’s previous tweet boasted that the Senate has passed “our bill imposing sanctions against human-rights violators” in Venezuela. The cognitive dissonance surely whooshed right over Rubio’s elegantly coiffed head.
The nature of evil has been a Republican obsession since immediately after 9/11. Evil is not only present in our enemies but, at times, their most distinguishing characteristic. (Bush’s “Axis of Evil” conveniently lumped together the otherwise unallied Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.) Human-rights violations are things bad guys do. We’re the good guys. “The United States of America is awesome. We are awesome,” insisted the apparently sincere Fox News host Andrea Tantaros last week. “This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.” As a frank display of unreasoning chauvinistic bellicosity, this was, in its own way, awesome. It was also no less sophisticated a response than Dick Cheney’s, who quickly dismissed the Senate’s detail-laden report as “hooey,” “full of crap,” and “a crock.”
For a leader long obsessed with the cruelty of communist regimes and jihadist movements, Cheney has always been complacent about mimicking that cruelty himself. In May 2009, he gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, an esteemed conservative think tank in Washington. Radiating gravitas, he referred repeatedly to the subjects of “enhanced interrogation” as “terrorists.” “In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists,” he announced. And: “On the left wing of the president’s party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists.” And: “You’ve heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists.” And: “Few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.”
At no point did Cheney even approach a cursory answer to questions like: How did he know that those subjected to these techniques were, in fact, terrorists? Did some elaborate judicial process exist that contained even stronger safeguards against false conviction than the imperfect American legal system? How could American intelligence staffers, dropped into foreign lands, reliably pluck out the guilty while sparing the innocent?
As we now know, they could not. Twenty-six of the 119 detainees turned out to be innocent. One of them was a Pakistani or Afghan man named Janat Gul. In July 2004, the CIA seized Gul, acting on a tip from a local informant who claimed he knew of a terror plot. His interrogators subjected him to sleep deprivation, slammed him into walls, and forced him to stand for as long as 47 hours in a row until he suffered hallucinations that he could see and hear his wife and children. He begged to be killed. Eventually, the informant who fingered Gul admitted to fabricating his story.
The Americans who engaged in this sadism should not necessarily be considered sadists. As their Republican defenders point out, they lived in terror of another mass-casualty attack. Their brutality arose from an attempt to prevent brutality on an even wider scale.
The failings of the torture regimen were, in fact, every conservative nightmare of a failed, out-of-control government program come to life. Through banal bureaucratic dysfunction, the torturers stumbled into a practice that lacked any sound empirical basis. (The CIA—which simply reverse-engineered the resistance training its own elite soldiers underwent, which tought them to withstand torture from communist regimes attempting to solicit propagandist false confessions—never considered that a practice designed to elicit false confessions is poorly suited to drawing out true ones.) Officials covered up their own mistakes; soldiers carried out practices haphazardly—some subjects were tortured for weeks before being interrogated. These are all acts of cruelty that Republicans would surely find terrifying—evil, even—if enacted by foreign governments, or Democratic administrations. And yet a fixation on evil abroad rendered invisible the most egregious abuses of government powers at home.
The most important evidence of the Bush administration’s disposition toward torture may have come not from the Senate report but from Cheney’s second and more carefully considered reply. Appearing later that night on Fox News, the former vice-president was no longer merely dismissing the report’s conclusions out of hand. Nor was he retreating to the slick evasions or complaints about George W. Bush’s feelings that so many of his fellow Republicans had relied upon.
The host, Bret Baier, asked Cheney about Bush’s reported discomfort when told of a detainee’s having been chained to a dungeon ceiling, clothed only in a diaper, and forced to urinate and defecate on himself. “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘Please, please, tell us what you know’?” Cheney said. “Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts.”
Here, finally, was the brutal moral logic of Cheneyism on bright display. The insistence by his fellow partisans on averting their eyes from the horrible truth at least grows out of a human reaction. Cheney does not even understand why somebody would look away. His soul is a cold, black void.
*This article appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.