by Frank Rich
After watching the farce surrounding Dick Cheney's coming-out party this month, you have to wonder: Which will reach Washington first, change or the terrorists? If change doesn't arrive soon, terrorists may well rush in where the capital's fools now tread.
The Beltway antics that greeted the great Cheney-Obama torture debate were an unsettling return to the post-9/11 dynamic that landed America in Iraq. Once again Cheney and his cohort were using lies and fear to try to gain political advantage - this time to rewrite history and escape accountability for the failed Bush presidency rather than to drum up a new war. Once again Democrats in Congress were cowed. And once again too much of the so-called liberal news media parroted the right's scare tactics, putting America's real security interests at risk by failing to challenge any Washington politician carrying a big stick.
Cheney's "no middle ground" speech on torture at the American Enterprise Institute arrived with the kind of orchestrated media campaign that he, his boss and Karl Rove patented in the good old days. It was bookended by a pair of Republican attack ads on the Web that crosscut President Obama's planned closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center with apocalyptic imagery - graphic video of the burning twin towers in one ad, a roar of nuclear holocaust (borrowed from the L.B.J. "daisy" ad of 1964) in the other.
The speech itself, with 20 mentions of 9/11, struck the same cynical note as the ads, as if the G.O.P. was almost rooting for a terrorist attack on Obama's watch. "No one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do," Cheney said as a disingenuous disclaimer before going on to charge that Obama's "half measures" were leaving Americans "half exposed." The new president, he said, is unraveling "the very policies that kept our people safe since 9/11." In other words, when the next attack comes, it will be all Obama's fault. A new ad shouting "We told you so!" awaits only the updated video.
The Republicans at least have an excuse for pushing this poison. They are desperate. The trio of Pillsbury doughboys now leading the party - Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Cheney - have variously cemented the G.O.P.'s brand as a whites-only men's club by revoking Colin Powell's membership and smearing the first Latina Supreme Court nominee as a "reverse racist." Republicans in Congress have no plausible economic, health care or energy policies to counter Obama's. The only card left to play is 9/11.
Yet even before Cheney spoke, Congressional Democrats were quaking in fear, purporting with straight faces that the transfer of detainees to "supermax" American prisons constituted a serious security threat. Many of the same senators who signed on to the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002 joined the 90-to-6 majority that put a hold on Obama's Gitmo closure plans.
The déjà vu in the news media was more chilling. Rather than vet the substance of Cheney's fulmination, talking heads instead hyped the split-screen "dueling speeches" gimmick of the back-to-back Obama-Cheney scheduling. Time magazine's political Web site Photoshopped Cheney and Obama's faces atop prize fighters' bodies.
Most of the punditocracy scored the fight on a curve, setting up a false equivalence between the men's ideas. Cheney's pugnacious certitude edged out Obama's law-professor nuance. "On policy grounds, you've got a real legitimate fight here," David Gregory insisted on "Meet the Press" as he regurgitated the former vice president's argument ("You can't compromise on these matters") and questioned whether the president could "really bring" his brand of pragmatism "to the issue of the war on terror."
One New York Daily News columnist summed up Cheney's supposed TKO this way: "The key to Cheney's powerful performance: facts, facts, facts." But the facts, as usual, were wrong.
At the McClatchy newspapers' Washington bureau, the reporters Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel detailed 10 whoppers. With selective quotations, Cheney falsified the views of the director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, on the supposed intelligence value of waterboarding. Equally bogus was Cheney's boast that his administration had "moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and their sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks." In truth, the Bush administration had lost Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, not least because it started diverting huge assets to Iraq before accomplishing the mission of vanquishing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. That decision makes us less safe to this very minute.
You can find a link to the complete Landay-Strobel accounting of Cheney's errors in the online version of this column. The failure of much of the press to match their effort has a troubling historical antecedent. These are the same two journalists who, reporting for what was then Knight Ridder, uncovered much of the deceit in the Bush-Cheney case for the Iraq war in the crucial weeks before Congress gave the invasion the green light.
On Sept. 6, 2002, Landay and Strobel reported that there was no known new intelligence indicating that "the Iraqis have made significant advances in their nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs." It was two days later that The Times ran its now notorious front-page account of Saddam Hussein's "quest for thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes." In the months that followed, as the Bush White House kept beating the drum for Saddam's imminent mushroom clouds to little challenge from most news organizations, Landay and Strobel reported on the "lack of hard evidence" of Iraqi weapons and the infighting among intelligence agencies. Their scoops were largely ignored by the big papers and networks as America hurtled toward fiasco.
Another reporter who was ahead of the pack in unmasking Bush-Cheney propaganda is the author Ron Suskind. In his 2006 book on the American intelligence matrix, "The One Percent Doctrine," Suskind wrote about a fully operational and potentially catastrophic post-9/11 Qaeda assault on America that actually was aborted in the Bush years: a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. It was halted 45 days before zero hour - but not because we stopped it. Al-Zawahri had called it off.
When Bush and Cheney learned of the cancellation later on from conventional intelligence, they were baffled as to why. The answer: Al-Zawahri had decided that a rush-hour New York subway attack was not enough of an encore to top 9/11. Al Qaeda's "special event" strategy, Suskind wrote, requires the creation of "an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation" that is "multiplied by time passing." The event that fits that bill after 9/11 must involve some kind of nuclear weapon.
"What are the lessons of this period?" Suskind asked when we spoke last week. "If you draw the wrong lessons, you end up embracing the wrong answers." They are certainly not the lessons cited by Cheney. Waterboarding hasn't and isn't going to save us from anything. The ticking time-bomb debate rekindled by Cheney's speech may be entertaining on "24" or cable-news food fights, but is a detour from the actual perils before the country. "What we're dealing with is a patient foe who thinks in decades while we tend to think more in news cycles," Suskind said. "We have to try to wrestle this fear-based debate into something resembling a reality-based discussion."
The reality is that while the Bush administration was bogged down in Iraq and being played by Pervez Musharraf, the likelihood of Qaeda gaining access to nuclear weapons in a Taliban-saturated Pakistan was increasing by the day. We know that in the month before 9/11, bin Laden and al-Zawahri met with the Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. That was the real link between 9/11 and nuclear terror that the Bush administration let metastasize while it squandered American resources on a fictional link between 9/11 and a "nuclear" Saddam.
And where are we now? On the eve of Obama's inauguration, David Sanger reported in The Times that military and nuclear experts agree that if "a real-life crisis" breaks out in Pakistan "it is unlikely that anyone would be able to assure an American president, with confidence, that he knew where all of Pakistan's weapons were - or that none were in the hands of Islamic extremists."
Pakistan is the time bomb. But with a push from Cheney, abetted by too many Democrats and too many compliant journalists, we have been distracted into drawing the wrong lessons, embracing the wrong answers. We are even wasting time worrying that detainees might escape from tomb-sized concrete cells in Colorado.
What we need to be doing instead, as Suskind put it, is to "build the thing we don't have - human intelligence. We need people who are cooperating with us, who step up and help, and who won't turn away when they see things happening. Hearts and minds - which we've botched - must be corrected and corrected quickly. That's what wins the battle, not going medieval." It's not for nothing, after all, that Powell, Gen. David Petraeus and Robert Gates, the secretary of defense - among other military minds - agree with Obama, not Cheney, about torture and Gitmo.
The harrowing truth remains unchanged from what it was before Cheney emerged from his bunker to set Washington atwitter. The Bush administration did not make us safer either before or after 9/11. Obama is not making us less safe. If there's another terrorist attack, it will be because the mess the Bush administration ignored in Pakistan and Afghanistan spun beyond anyone's control well before Americans could throw the bums out.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company