Will the Pope let me walk into the Vatican and paint a mural?
When he was vice president, Dick Cheney never acknowledged the public’s right to know anything. Now, suddenly, he has the full disclosure bug. He told Fox News this week that President Obama’s decision to release memos written by the Bush Justice Department authorizing the abuse and torture of detainees inspired him to ask the Central Intelligence Agency to release transcripts of those interrogations.
Doing so, he said, would show the world how much valuable intelligence was obtained by subjecting detainees to forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation, slamming against walls, extremes of heat and cold and the near-drowning known as waterboarding.
Mr. Cheney was not being entirely honest (he made the request last month), and his logic is confounding. If releasing the memos leaves this country open to a devastating terrorist attack — as Mr. Cheney claims — imagine the potential harm from revealing all of the secrets gleaned from the three most “high value” terrorists captured since Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, Mr. Cheney raised an important point. Did violating the law against torture and abuse, shredding international treaties and destroying America’s global standing actually do any good?
Mr. Cheney claims that the waterboarding saved thousands of lives. Most accounts that don’t come from officials involved in the formation of those policies suggest that that is not the case. The question needs to be answered so Americans can decide if they want to buy into Mr. Cheney’s view that the ends always justify such barbaric means.
Americans also need to know who pushed the Justice Department lawyers to twist the law and the Constitution to excuse torture. And we need to know the legal reasoning, if any, behind former President George W. Bush’s decision to authorize illegal tapping of Americans’ telephones and e-mail accounts.
We need to know the legal reasoning, planning and authorization behind Mr. Bush’s program of “extraordinary rendition” — in which people were abducted and sent to countries where it was obvious to all that they were in danger of being tortured, or would be tortured.
Until these questions are answered, there is no way to ensure that these abuses will never be repeated. And the only way to get those answers is with a full investigation that has both stature and subpoena power.
The report on detainee abuse in Iraq, released by the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, showed how decisions made at the White House on detainee abuse led directly to Abu Ghraib. Among the documents that still need to be released is a Justice Department report on the attorneys who wrote the torture apologias. It was finished last year, but it was bottled up by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who wanted to give those very lawyers a chance to read and amend it. The C.I.A. should also declassify its inspector general’s report on detainee abuse.
It was encouraging to hear Mr. Obama, who has been resisting a serious look at these abuses, virtually invite Congress to open an investigation. He also did not rule out criminal prosecutions, at least for the lawyers and other officials.
Punting this to Congress was not the bravest political act. But at least the White House recognizes that an investigation is needed and does not want to be seen as standing in its way. We can’t imagine how such an investigation can move ahead without Mr. Cheney’s testimony. But given the former vice president’s new devotion to full disclosure, we’re sure he’ll be happy to comply.