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It’s the thought of fear that we fear

June 15, 2009

CIA Director Leon Panetta,  usually a principled and prudent man, made a thought-provoking statement recently in regards to former Vice President Dick Cheney, and his comments about President Barack Obama’s national security policies.

From The New Yorker:

Leon Panetta, the C.I.A.’s new director—and the man who bears much of the responsibility for keeping the country safe—learned the details of Cheney’s speech when he arrived in his office, on the seventh floor of the agency’s headquarters. An hour earlier, he had been standing at the side of President Barack Obama, who was giving a speech at the National Archives, in which he argued that America could “fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law.”  In January, the Obama Administration banned the “enhanced” techniques that the Bush Administration had approved for the agency, including water-boarding and depriving prisoners of sleep for up to eleven days.  Panetta, pouring a cup of coffee, responded to Cheney’s speech with surprising candor.  I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue,  he told me.  It’s almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it’s almost as if he’s wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that’s dangerous politics…

Here is a brief quote of what Cheney had to say in his speech May 21st:

I might add that people who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about values. Intelligence officers of the United States were not trying to rough up some terrorists simply to avenge the dead of 9/11. We know the difference in this country between justice and vengeance.

Intelligence officers were not trying to get terrorists to confess to past killings; they were trying to prevent future killings. From the beginning of the program, there was only one focused and all- important purpose: We sought — and we, in fact, obtained — specific information on terrorist plans.

Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogation. And to call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe…

The idea that Panetta was trying to express was that Cheney’s talk was irresponsibly and unnecessarily instilling fear in the American populace.  An American Populace that already felt the twinges of it tickling the base of their skulls.  So,  in theory, his opinion is a sound one.  But think about this.  How different is what Panetta said, from the basic theme of Cheney’s points?  Cheney explicitly acts to salvage his tattered reputation, and the reputation of the Bush administration’s policy on intelligence gathering.  A policy that has come under fire from all corners as it relates to the enhanced interrogation techniques used, and the clandestine way that these acts were protected by law.  I believe that  regardless of the information that these methods yielded, to compromise the  principled rectitude of the United States of America, is damaging to our ability to lead globally.  Cheney then adds to his false argument by assuming that because we can no longer “torture,” we will not be able to properly safeguard the people of this country.  The President, he surmises, has left us open to an attack sometime in the near future.  That is fear mongering.  That is the essence of instilling fear, and fomenting false indignation.

Director Panetta on the other hand is wrong to blanketly assume that Vice President Cheney wants to see an attack just for political expediency.  While it seems easy to presuppose this from the words Cheney used,  it is still as reckless and partisan as what the Vice President said.  The implication in the Director’s words speak volumes, and other people reading it might draw the same conclusion as Panetta.  Therein lies the fear.

This is a dangerous political climate.  I suppose it’s a reflection of the dangerous times we live in.  Words carry so much weight, especially involving life-altering subjects such as war and terrorism.  The idea is to ratchet down the rhetoric, not en-flame the inborn fears that we all share.  The fear consumes rational thought.  We need out rational thoughts to have real, healthy debate and dialogue.  These times call for that.

UPDATE: The former veep has responded

UPDATE II: Uh-oh.  Senator McCain has weighed in

UPDATE III: Director Panetta’s response

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