Didn't you just know that if the U.S. ever sank so low as to provide a legal rationale for torture, it would be gift-wrapped in the American dream? The Judiciary Committee's heart was warmed by Gonzales to the point of thrombosis. An exception was Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. "We have dramatically undermined the war effort by ... playing cute with the law," Graham said, adding that the use of torture had caused us to lose "the moral high ground" and become "more like our enemy."
Gonzales, whose answers to that point had been marked by saccharine amnesia, roused himself: "We are nothing like our enemy ... They are beheading people like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg." Happily, Graham wouldn't let Gonzales get away with it: "But we are not like who we want to be or who we have been ... We have lost our way."
That was a rare moment of passion during a soporific day of questioning. Indeed, all of Washington seems buried under a goose-down comforter of complacency these days. The Republicans are smug, the Democrats disconsolate. The news from Iraq grows worse, but the electorate didn't seem to care about the President's Mesopotamian malfeasance in November, so why get all het up about it now? The astounding news that the Bush Administration was involved in reinterpreting the rules for the use of torturea fact that has been known since the relevant Justice Department memo was leaked last Junehas occasioned ... nothing, not even a burp of public outrage. John Kerry chose not to mention Abu Ghraib once during the presidential debates and, further, chose not to raise the issue of Bush Administration complicity because, I am told, his advisers were afraid that the Republicans would paint him weak on the war on terrorism. Of course, Kerry's defining weakness was his unwillingness to say anything his aides thought would make him sound weak, even if it was palpably true and important and he believed it.
Nor were the Democrats exactly rigorous in their pursuit of the truth last week. Senator Joe Biden didn't ask a question. Instead, he used his entire 10-minute question period to launch a full-bodied rhetorical assault on Gonzales' evasiveness: "We're looking for candor, ol' buddy. I love you, but you're not very candid so far." Biden vowed a withering cross-examination in his second roundand then disappeared for the day. Senator Charles Schumer spent his time nattering on about Senate filibuster rules. But Senator Patrick Leahy did induce Gonzales to admit that, as White House counsel, he had consulted with the Justice Department's office of legal counsel about the torture memo. There were meetings in his White House office. Techniques like waterboardingin which a detainee is strapped down and made to believe he may be drownedmay have been discussed. Gonzales allowed that he could not quite recall specifically how he felt about waterboarding, but he did generally support the thrust of the Justice Department's decision to severely constrict the definition of torture. Senator Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin elicited Gonzales' acknowledgment that the new Bush Administration policy on torture had "migrated" to the CIA and Pentagon and from there to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Not one of the Senators bothered to ask whether the President had been informed by his close aide Gonzales that the U.S. had changed its policy on torture. "Why ask?" said a staff aide. "He'd say he couldn't recall. He couldn't even tell us what his own definition of torture was."
In fairness, Gonzales' argumentthat stateless, remorseless al-Qaeda terrorists should be detained in a manner different from and stricter than the standard Geneva Convention procedureshas merit. The use of aggressive, nonviolent interrogation techniques, perhaps even drugs like sodium pentothal, may not be inappropriate to elicit information from those intent on the mass murder of civilians. But physical assault is something else entirely. The world now knows that the Bush White House at least tacitly approved the loosening of standards that led to the outrages of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamoand that no one of significance has been sacked for it. True, the offending memo was recently retracted, but the Administration's position on torture remains astonishingly fuzzy. When asked by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois if U.S. personnel could legally engage in torture under any circumstances, Gonzales said, "I don't believe so, but I'd want to get back to you on that and make sure I don't provide a misleading answer." These words were uttered benignly, helpfully, disgracefully.