People far smarter than me have tried to psychoanalyze Dick Cheney to understand his motivations, both recent and past. Books have been written on the topic; talking head politicos have strained neck muscles arguing the matter before television cameras. But after watching Cheney's terror-law speech on Thursday, and after reading his prepared remarks, let me humbly offer a theory that may explain both why he seems so creepy to so many and so right to some.
Cheney strong defense of the Bush Administration's approach to the legal war on terror, at a home game before the American Enterprise Institute, makes clear that Cheney's horrifying experience on September 11, 2001 still continues to advise his world view, as it does to so many other people in and around the terror scenes that day. He didn't have to run from the rubble and dust of the World Trade Center. But he did have to hunker down in the White House.
"I've heard occasional speculation, Cheney said, "that I'm a different man after 9/11. I wouldn't say that. But I'll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities." Indeed, Cheney's bunker mentality appears to have drowned out for him the import of any interceding events and conclusions gleaned from real world experiences in the war on terror.
Consider this. Cheney argued Thursday that he "was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful and the right thing to do." Yet this conclusion directly conflicts with the testimony of Ali Soufan, former FBI interrogator, who declared before Congress that torture techniques weren't necessary because conventional techniques were working.
And this. Cheney contends that the Bush Administration "didn't invent" the authority to use water-boarding and other "enhanced interrogation tactics." He argued that such power "is drawn from Article Two of the Constitution. And it was given specificity by the Congress after 9/11, in a Joint Resolution authorizing 'all necessary and appropriate' force to protect the American people." Yet most of the greatest legal minds of our times dispute such a broad reading of the president's constitutional power to authorize torture or even any legislative directive to do so.
And this. Cheney tried mightily to distinguish water-boarding as a policy priority from the atrocities that occurred at the notorious prison in Baghdad. "At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency." Yet this uncharacteristic finger-pointing at American soldiers belies the reality that the so-called "torture memos" that Cheney authorized and justified led directly to the abuse at Abu Ghraib. On this there is almost no real dispute.
Cheney also spent a great deal of time arguing against bringing any of the Guantanamo detainees into the United States. "I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come." Yet our "Supermax" federal prisons already are brimming with Middle Eastern terrorists like Ramzi Yousef, Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui as well as domestic terrorists like Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. No one has ever escaped from such a place.
The list goes on. On Thursday, Cheney even argued that our democracy, to the extent it tolerates (and indeed encourages) public debate, gives aid and comfort to our enemies. "When they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don't stand back in awe of our legal system," Cheney said, "… the terrorists see just what they were hoping for—our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity."
How do we account for Cheney's failure or refusal to acknowledge all that we have learned about the world since 2002? How do we explain the worldview he continues to share with his camp followers both in and out of power? Do we chalk it up to him being a stubborn, venal, self-righteous man incapable of admitting his own mistakes? Is he truly what Andrew Sullivan calls a "dead-ender?" Do we hang it on his ideology? On his Western individualism that eschews the need for consensus and compromise? Or is he, as many people say, just a dick.
I hereby choose the following explanation. Cheney's world today is still the world of September 11, 2001, a world where hijacked planes are screaming toward their targets, chaos reigns, and anything goes. It's a world where civil liberties are endangered, laws are overlooked, and the enemy, for all we know, is truly at the gate. Cheney simply hasn't moved beyond that mode into the realm of the present. That's why he cannot accept that the decisions he and others made in the long shadows of that day—water-boarding, indefinite detention, Gitmo, and so on— were short-sighted and even, in some cases, counter-productive.
President Barack Obama keeps accusing Cheney and other critics of offering American's a "false choice" between national security and our ideals of personal freedom. In Cheney's case, the choice seems to be between continued immersion in the darkness of 9/11 or the embrace of the various wisdoms we have learned since. Seems to me that is as good an explanation as anything else to explain Cheney's confounding attitude and statements on such important topics.
Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.