In recent years, though, a troubling number of prominent figures on the political right have seemingly abandoned that standard, especially with respect to national‐security issues. Instead, their sole guiding principle appears to be whether an initiative “works”—in the sense of producing the desired result. Whether that initiative violates fundamental constitutional or moral standards is seen as irrelevant and, frankly, a somewhat quaint consideration. By embracing ruthless pragmatism, these individuals come perilously close to being conservative Leninists.
Signs of such attitudes began to surface during the Cold War, and they were among the reasons why I left Young Americans for Freedom, the Young Republicans, and other conservative organizations. Increasingly, I heard the argument that, because America confronted a dangerous, ruthless, and evil adversary, our country could not be squeamish about the tactics used to thwart that threat. The policies U.S. officials pursued reflected a willingness to cut moral and legal corners to achieve the broader objective. The cynical military coups that the Eisenhower administration executed to topple democratic, albeit left‐leaning, governments in Iran and Guatemala were international manifestations of this attitude. So, too, were lucrative military‐ and economic‐aid programs to some of the most odious dictators on the planet, including Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, the shah of Iran, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Domestically, most conservatives seemed comfortable with government programs that spied on, and even harassed, critics of U.S. foreign policy.
That tendency to disregard legal and moral considerations has resurfaced and become even more virulent in conservative political and policy circles regarding counterterrorism measures since the September 11 attacks. In a series of memos to the President (the most infamous one being the August 1, 2002, “torture memo”) conservative legal scholars John Yoo and Jay Bybee, at the time lawyers for the Department of Justice, made sweeping assertions about presidential authority to wage the “War on Terror.” Among other arguments, Yoo and Bybee contended that “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a term that was little more than a euphemism for torture) were not barred by the U.S. Constitution, treaties the United States had signed, or any federal statute. Indeed, any congressional act that purported to limit the president’s power in that area would be invalid.
More broadly, Yoo and Bybee adopted a breathtaking interpretation of presidential power in the arena of national security. Among other steps, they argued, the president could order the indefinite detention of any terrorist suspect—even a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil—without a trial or even an evidentiary hearing.
How far John Yoo was willing to go in placing the president beyond any legal restraints became apparent in a December 2005 debate with a critic of the Bush administration’s policies. When asked whether a president could order that the testicles of a suspected terrorist’s child be crushed in order to pressure the father, Yoo astonishingly declined to condemn such an outrageous idea as legally and morally offensive. Instead he replied, “I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.”
The Bush administration sought to put most of the recommendations of the Yoo‐Bybee memos into practice. This is troubling on several counts. The Geneva Conventions prohibit not only torture but, in equally categorical terms, the use of “violence,” “cruel treatment,” or even “humiliating or degrading treatment” of detainees. Moreover, the War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of these prohibitions a felony. A number of interrogation techniques that the Bush administration approved, most notably waterboarding and extended sleep deprivation, were rather clear violations. The August 2002 memo even approved any CIA enhanced‐interrogation technique that did not lead to organ failure or other severe, permanent physical damage.
David Addington, the general counsel in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, chafed at legal restrictions because in his view they would hobble efforts “to quickly [sic] obtain information from captured terrorists.” Addington strongly endorsed the most radical claim in the August 2002 memo: that the president could authorize any interrogation method. Treaties, and even U.S. laws, forbidding “any person” to commit torture simply did “not apply” to the commander in chief, he argued.
In a May 2009 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney himself embraced such reasoning and vehemently defended the record of the Bush administration on pragmatic grounds: “In the years after 9/11, our government also understood that the safety of the country required collecting information known only to the worst of the terrorists.” And in some cases, “that information could be gained only through tough interrogations.” The intelligence officers “who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.” A bold claim, and one that former CIA director George Tenet had made previously: “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots.”
Cheney’s dismissive attitude toward criticism of the policies on moral or legal grounds was especially unsettling. He recounted that one high‐level Al Qaeda operative had said that he would talk as soon as he got to the United States and saw his lawyer. “But like many critics of interrogations,” Cheney sneered, “he clearly misunderstood the business at hand. American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding, but to extract information from him before al‐Qaeda could strike again and kill more of our people.”
Other conservative figures echoed Cheney’s condemnation of moves by the Obama administration to investigate whether unlawful abuses of detainees had taken place. House Republican leader John Boehner stated,