IF the debate over the war in Iraq now raging across our front pages and airwaves proves nothing else, it already has demonstrated that this administration believes the people's attention span can be measured in nanoseconds and that memory has the shelf life of fresh bread.
Take, for example, this week's astonishingly revelatory public statements by Vice President Dick Cheney and Porter J. Goss, the director of central intelligence:
Monday, Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that anyone who suggested that President Bush or anyone in his administration had made the case for invading Iraq by distorting or exaggerating prewar intelligence on Saddam Hussein's purported possession of biological or nuclear weapons was guilty of historical "revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety."
According to the vice president, "any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false" and the product of a "self-defeating pessimism."
Just 24 hours earlier, The Times' Bob Drogin and John Goetz had described in vivid and convincing detail how the administration exaggerated and recklessly misused intelligence concerning Hussein's alleged manufacture of biological weapons that was provided by the now notorious Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball." (Who says spooks don't have a sense of humor?) As Drogin and Goetz reported, Curveball's handlers in Germany, where he sought political asylum, repeatedly warned their American counterparts that their informant was an unreliable — possibly unstable — fabricator. Still, both Bush and then Secretary of State Colin L. Powell incorporated his fantasies into their arguments for war. Conscientious CIA agents who had tried to blow the whistle on a deceit the administration found deliciously convenient were dispatched to windowless offices without telephones.
Cheney's reasons for ignoring these facts — and for hanging the politically charged "revisionist" epithet around the necks of those who refuse to go along — are pretty clear. A wide spectrum of public opinion surveys now shows that more than half the American people already believe that the war in Iraq is a mistake and that the president misled them to justify the invasion. The vice president and his allies within the administration were the war's most forceful advocates, and a recent Newsweek poll found that just 29% of Americans think Cheney is either honest or ethical.
SO why put him out front to make the administration's case? As the Weekly Standard's William Kristol put it: "His numbers have dropped and he is probably not the best messenger to independents and swing voters, but in terms of managing an argument, he is good at it and his style lends itself to it."
This isn't about getting to the truth concerning our headlong plunge into the Iraqi quagmire — and, yes, it's time to revive that word — it's about winning an argument that has put the president's poll numbers into freefall.
And that brings us to the CIA's Goss, who this week told USA Today: "This agency does not torture. We use lawful capabilities to collect vital information, and we do it in a variety of unique and innovative ways, all of which are legal and none of which are torture."
Fortunately, some of the people forced to work for Goss have consciences stronger than their stomachs. The interrogation techniques they described to ABC News don't sound particularly "innovative or unique," though they do sound exactly like torture. For example, there's "shaking or striking" prisoners to cause pain and fear. Then there's forcing a prisoner with shackled hands and feet to stand upright for as long as 40 hours. Others are placed naked in freezing cells and periodically doused with cold water.
The best, though, is something called "waterboarding," which ABC's CIA sources described this way: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt."
Wednesday, in an editorial that went right to the point, the Washington Post wondered: "Are these techniques 'not torture,' as Mr. Goss claims? In fact, several of them have been practiced by repressive regimes around the world, and they once were routinely condemned by the State Department in its annual human rights reports. By insisting that they are not torture, Mr. Goss sets a new standard — both for the treatment of detainees by other governments and for the handling of captive Americans. If an American pilot is captured in the Middle East, then beaten, held naked in a cold cell and subjected to simulated drowning, will Mr. Goss say he has not been tortured?"
Does it matter?
Apparently it does to other people in the CIA. As the New York Times reported Thursday, one of the major reasons the government lessened the charges against alleged terrorist Jose Padilla — who the administration initially said plotted to set off a so-called dirty bomb inside the United States — was that the chief witnesses against him have been tortured. They are two senior two Al Qaeda leaders, Abu Zubeida and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, currently being held in secret by the U.S. government.
According to the New York Times, the CIA inspector general found Mohammed, reputed mastermind of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, "had been subjected to excessive use of a technique involving near drowning in the first months after his capture."
Apparently the paperwork on that never made it to Goss' desk, so he never got the opportunity to brief Cheney. Maybe when he does, he also can bring the vice president up to speed on that irritating Curveball problem.
MORE than anyone else in this administration, Cheney and Goss have rhetorically upped the ante and made clear the critical domestic issue that also is at stake in America's intensifying foreign policy debate over the Iraqi war.
Nearly 40 years ago, Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz — whose 1953 book, "The Captive Mind," remains an unmatched account of the evils attendant on intellectual accommodation to political expediency — began his poem "Incantation" with these lines:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and
oppression with small.
Was there ever a better reproach to the linguistic evasions of our home-grown torturers, their accomplices and apologists? Was there ever a more urgent need for the American news media to recover Edward R. Murrow's disdain for that faux fairness that "gives the word of Judas equal weight with that of Jesus"?
Properly punctuating the past is not revisionism. Sane and mature societies — no less than individuals — accept that they have an obligation to parse what was as a way to understand more clearly what is. We do not overstate when we describe this as a moral duty. History, after all, is our collective memory, though we also must recognize that — even with the best of wills — it inevitably is selective and fallible.
That's why Cheney is right about at least one thing: Deliberately falsifying history for mere political advantage is a particularly noxious social perversion. It is, to borrow, his stingingly apt adjective, "reprehensible."
But candid recollection and sober reflection do not amount to revisionism — unless, of course, you're already committed to self-deception and determined to convince others to live with your lie.