A not so great debate

The Washington Post reports on the debate within Obama’s “inner circle” about whether to release the interrogation details in four top secret memos. According to the Post, by the end it literally was a debate, high school style, with one official selected to argue the “affirmative” and another the “negative.”

The Post’s report may not be accurate and complete, but if it is, the striking thing about the debate was the absence of any argument in favor of releasing the documents other than partisan gain. Most of the “pro” arguments reported by the Post amount to answers to the “anti” arguments. For example, Defense Secretary Gates supported the disclosures because he thought the information would come out eventually and the White House was willing to promise that CIA officers will not be prosecuted. These are not reasons for releasing the document. They are, in debate parlance, rebuttal not part of the affirmative case in which the advantages of a particular course of action are presented.

The Post reports that some Obama aides saw an advantage in “focusing public attention on the coldness and sterility of the legal justifications for abusive techniques.” Put to one side the absurdity of the notion that the American public is going to pour over legal arguments to assess their “sterility.” Focus instead on the fact that the debate wasn’t over releasing the portions of the memos that discussed legal justifications. Leon Panetta, the main opponent of full disclosure, argued only that the information about specific interrogation techniques should not be released. Thus, the “sterility” argument was not relevant to the question being debated.

The real arguments for releasing specific information about interrogation techniques appear to have been purely partisan. According to the Post, Obama’s advisers want to undermine Vice President Cheney’s claim that the Obama administration’s approach to interrogations is making us less safe. Cheney understands this, which is why he shrewedly responded to the release of the information on interrogation techniques by calling on the White House to release documents showing the intelligence gains produced by the tactics in question.

Cheney wins this argument, I think. The public is unlikely to turn against the interrogation techniques in question solely by virtue of a description of those techniques. It will want to know, in addition, whether the techniques caused terrorists to disgorge information they were withholding. [ John’s post immediately below supports my view]

Obama himself has presented his most fundamental reason for releasing the information. He wants to show, as he told reporters on Tuesday, that the U.S. lost its “moral bearings” during the Bush years. Indeed, he wants to skew the evidence in that direction through a one-sided release of information that ignores the moral benefits — including protecting lives — of the Bush administration’s actions.

But why? Doing so may serve Obama’s narrow interest in looking good at Bush’s expense. But how does it serve the national interest to portray the U.S. as having acted immorally for years? Is Obama really narcissistic enough to believe that the takeaway of our enemies and critics will be “Obama cleanses U.S. soul,” rather than “Obama admits U.S. lost its soul?

Secretary Gates doesn’t share this belief. He believes that Obama’s decision has the potential to produce “a backlash in the Middle East and in theatres where we’re involved in conflict” and “might have a negative impact on our troops.” And, as I showed last night, Dennis Blair well understood the demoralizing effect of Obama’s decision on the intelligence community.

These would be stiff prices to pay for trying to make Dick Cheney look bad and Barack Obama look good.

UPDATE: One more point. In the Post’s account those who argued against releasing details about interrogation techniques were no more high-minded than the other side. Their main argument seems to have been that releasing the information “could spark a national security debate with conservatives that could undermine Obama’s broader agenda.”

In other words, the debate over which Obama presided was all about what would help Obama. The debaters obviously knew their audience.

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