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Does Torture Work? The Debate Heats Up

Richard Cohen may have hit upon the journalistic equivalent of that proverbial "eureka moment." In his Tuesday piece, the Washington Post columnist raised the question that became the cyber equivalent of catnip for the political blogosphere: What if Dick Cheney was right?

"Sacrilege!" screamed the left. "Told you so," countered the right. As for the rest of us, well, we're left with both feet planted firmly in mid-air.

I suppose that Cohen's liberal pedigree insulates him somewhat from critics accusing him of being a toady for the Bush administration's treatment of detainees accused of being terrorists, sort of a Nixon goes to China defense. I say "somewhat" because the torture question has become a touchstone issue for opponents of the Bush administration.

What really got under their skin was Cohen's question whether Cheney's statements about the efficacy of waterboarding, beatings and other techniques euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation" might be true.

That ran against the growing conventional wisdom that harsh interrogation don't work very well. Keep someone in a stress standing position for two or three days over a period of months and they'll tell you anything to get some shut eye.

"Yet," Cohen said. "I have to wonder whether what he is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works."

Cohen had to expect the inevitable blowback-and it was not long in coming. At The American Prospect, Adam Serwer, ripped Cohen for being hopelessly muddle-headed about the topic.

"It really takes a startling lack of self-awareness to write a column about how you "know" that no longer torturing people has made America less safe, only to write another thumbsucking column a few weeks later innocently asking, "I have to wonder" whether torture works. Somehow, Richard Cohen can write several columns on the same topic without realizing he's contradicted himself. "

But Cohen's piece followed Sunday's "Face the Nation" interview with Bob Schieffer, where Cheney said that he knows of a couple of CIA memos supporting his argument that roughing up prisoners saved many lives.

"That's what's in those memos," Cheney said, adding that the documents refer "specifically about different attack planning that was underway and how it was stopped."

Cheney's acknowledgment invites more scrutiny unless, of course, you believe that the former vice president is playing fast and loose with the truth. (To be sure, Cohen at one point refers to Cheney as a "one-man credibility gap.")

"He insisted that "the evidence is overwhelming" that al-Qaeda had been in high-level contact with Saddam Hussein's regime when the "evidence" was virtually nonexistent. And he repeatedly asserted that Iraq had a menacing nuclear weapons program. As a used-car dealer, he would have no return customers."

It's a familiar refrain but as Cohen suggests, the release of the memos may be the best way for the nation to reach consensus over prisoner handling tactics that many allies have deemed to be torture. Meanwhile, conservative bloggers have picked up Cohen's meme to draw their own conclusions.

Writing in Commentary, Jennifer Rubin followed Cohen's lead to insist that the "Democratic Congress" can no longer "selectively declassify documents and steer the outrage to just the "culprits" they desire.

"If the objectives now are to "learn lessons," hold everyone accountable for what they did, and explore whether circumstances justified their behavior I suppose we should have at it. And if Cheney is correct — and those memos provide evidence of the efficacy of these interrogation methods — then the president, who chose not to release them, has some explaining to do as well."

"Cheney may be politically unpopular, but he's been remarkably successful in demanding that more than a partisan slice of the story be told. Forcing a public debate about the hard and very real choices in war, and reminding the country of the circumstances in which the Bush administration labored after 9-11 are no small things."

The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb chimes in that despite his 18 percent approval rating, Cheney "is winning this argument against an incredibly popular president. Cohen offers one possible explanation for this the left might want to consider: he's winning because he's right."

While this gets sorted out, the best narrative of what enhanced interrogation looks like is this report from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Advance warning: the descriptions aren't for the faint of heart.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.