There are two debates on the use of harsh interrogation techniques. For the past several days the debate has been about what is so harsh that it crosses into torture. This is a tricky enough subject. By opening it, President Obama is appeasing his anti-Bush base who want to see show trials and conviction. At the same time, Obama has to convince the CIA that they are not going to be held accountable for actions that they performed. This resulted in a strange situation where it is apparently fine to torture people but a lawyer can be charged for giving a legal opinion. This lets the Democrats pursue their agenda against the Bush administration without antagonizing the CIA.
Recently former vice-president Cheney changed the argument. He asserted that these techniques stopped a terrorist attack and called on Obama to declassify documents which would prove it.
This takes the argument into different grounds. Legal niceties aside, people have been wondering aloud for years, what would you do if you needed information from someone to stop an act of terrorism. The argument here gets tricky.
In popular culture this is never an issue. Agent Jack Bauer on 24 regularly goes far beyond waterboarding or sleep deprivation to stop impending doom. The show's audience has no problem with this. After all, they know that the threat is both real and urgent.
There is the heart of the real life argument. Opponents of harsh interrogation insist that this situation never actually comes up and that it never produces reliable information, anyway.
Now Cheney is saying that it was urgent, it did produce good intelligence, and lives were saved.
For years the anti-Bush crowd insisted that he didn't keep us safe. They insisted that there was never any threat. 9/11 was a one-time event. No other terrorists have targeted the US. The few who have been arrested were never any threat, their plots would never have come to anything. The incidents that have happened in other countries will never happen here because we have integrated our Muslim population better that Europe.
But what if all of those assumptions are wrong? What if there were plots to kill Americans that could only be discovered through waterboarding or other harsh treatment? There is a reason that the last five directors of the CIA wanted Obama to keep the various torture memos classified and avoid the debate.
In the near future Obama is going to have to give a position on this. Would he sacrifice American lives to keep his hands clean? Further, if there is an attack, Republicans will spend years insisting that he could have stopped it if he had been less squeamish.
A frequent complaint about Bush was that he didn't listen to the experts (in this case, his generals). Now Obama has ignored five different CIA directors. He is counting on the country never encountering a situation again where someone has vital information. This is a huge gamble.