I'm still catching up on the torture memos released this week, and the commentary thereon. There has of course been a great deal of more timely and insightful blogging on this than I can hope to produce. (See here and here, for starters.)
Generally speaking, I'm actually in favor of giving people in positions of great responsibility tremendous latitude in the execution of their duties. All possible contingencies cannot (and I think, should not) be prepared for within a broad and practical legal framework. This is true whether we are talking about the protocol for a traffic stop or how suspected terrorists in custody can be interrogated.
Where I part ways with what was apparently the prevailing wisdom of the previous (and possibly current) administration with regard to the latter is that I take the "great responsibility" part every bit as seriously as the "tremendous latitude" part. If you are someone with the power to make the decision to torture people, you are also someone who can and should take full responsibility for that decision.
By this, I mean a great deal more than standing up at a press conference and saying "I take full responsibility for the decisions I made pursuant to the execution of my duties," stepping away from the microphone, and going back to your job. I mean that you actually, you know, take responsibility for your actions by accepting the consequences thereof in real and personal way.
To allow government officials to make criminal decisions without any criminal repercussions is to put them above the law. It is the very antithesis of (lower-case) republicanism. If you made it policy for the CIA to engage in illegal acts of torture, then you are complicit in a criminal conspiracy. You can and should be prosecuted for it. Jay Bybee, I'm looking at you. (Again, for starters.)
At a bare minimum, these people should have the decency to resign from public service, publicly beg the forgiveness of the innocent people wronged by the policies they put forth, and write a big fucking check to Amnesty International.
Putting it another way...isn't allowing government officials (elected and/or politically appointed) to act outside the law with impunity--even if they did so in what they may have genuinely believed was in the best interest of the country, and I think that many did--the moral equivalent of "capitalizing the gains and socializing the losses"? What's a few years in prison if you actually save the world? Take the risk. Make the decision. And accept the consequences.
The problem with the Bush team seems to have been that their threshold for extra-legal* action was clearly much, much too low. Neither the world, nor the country, was ever at stake. A bunch of political appointees who never served in the military or intelligence services thought they were living in a real-life episode of 24. And acted accordingly.
All of that said, I'm actually in a agreement with Dick Cheney--yes you read that correctly--in that I also think information obtained from the interrogations in question should be made public. If the ticking time-bomb scenario really did happen, and this really did make us substantially safer, that would absolutely mitigate all of this to a considerable degree. At this point I don't believe for a minute that such evidence exists, because if it did, they would have hauled it out a long time ago. But if I turn out to be wrong, let the record show I'm willing to revise my position in light of new information.
Which is a damn sight more than will ever be said of the Bush administration.
*This modifier is spelled "illegal" when applied to the actions of mere mortals.