"We ask [the CIA] to do some very difficult things [...] — in this case, we had specific legal authority from the Justice Department."

That's former Vice President Dick Cheney talking to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday. Initially, when the Cheney interview broke and I had a chance to read over the transcripts, I laughed. Let's leave aside the fact of some of the more blatant reversals (like the one I quoted above) and his constant return to the chest-beating declarations of having saved millions of American lives by preventing more attacks.

This is all ridiculously obvious, right?

The New York Times' summary explains:

Mr. Cheney described the inquiry as an "intensely partisan, politicized look back at the prior administration" intended to placate the left wing of the Democratic Party. "It's clearly a political move," he said. "I mean, there's no other rationale for why they're doing this."

In naming the prosecutor last week, Mr. Holder said he had no choice but to move forward with the investigation after the Justice Department's ethics office recommended a new review of several interrogation cases and he reviewed a 2004 report on the interrogation program by the C.I.A. inspector general that was released Monday under a court order.

The report described a variety of abuses, including suggestions about sexually assaulting a detainee's relatives and staging mock executions as well as the accounts of one prisoner who was repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to his carotid artery and another who was lifted off the grounds by his arms, which were tied behind his back.

There's no rationale for this? We are describing crimes of war that were either sanctioned or encouraged by our government. We aren't talking about what the definition of "is" is anymore; we're seeing a former Vice President defend torture and other unsanctioned behavior as part of a larger terror strategy. Don't get me wrong, perjury is serious business. But it's interesting to see where the rule of law seems to matter greatly (in which we ask the President about his sex life) and where it is being brushed under the rug (in which we protect our nation by ignoring the founding documents and moral codes of conduct.) Time magazine's Swampland blog adds a interesting twist to the conversation, noting:

Power drills and mock executions are not the only extralegal techniques that CIA employees are alleged to have committed. One CIA contractor, according to the CIA Inspector General, is alleged to have beaten an Afghan detainee to death with a large metal flashlight and his foot. Released criminal records show that another CIA employee was interrogating a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in a stress position with a bag over his head, when the detainee died of asphyxiation. Assuming that Cheney did not misspeak, his statement to Wallace suggests that he believes these deaths are "OK' given the circumstances.

There are the beginnings here of a possible pattern in Cheney's thoughts—the suggestion that violations of law in the service of a greater national good are forgivable. As TIME's Massimo Calabresi and Michael Weisskopf wrote in a cover story last month, the disagreement between President George Bush and Cheney over the pardoning of Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby similarly focused on this question of whether the rule of law should be sacrosanct. Bush saw his administration as a sort of repudiation of failings of the Bill Clinton, who was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for his statements to prosecutors about Monica Lewinsky. [...]

In the end, the Bush decision not to pardon Libby came down to Bush's conviction that the rule of law must be respected. It would be interesting to know if the former President now agrees with Cheney's contention that it was "OK" for CIA interrogators to go beyond what the law allowed.

So, no one is above the law, except the people who are above the law, who should not be questioned because it is obvious that they are serving the greater good. Right.

Also yesterday: Cheney's daughter Liz foolishly decided to stick with the lie that waterboarding isn't torture (Christopher Hitchens had a few thousand words to say about that), while John McCain decided to break with the party line, while still hedging:

"I was radically opposed to (harsh interrogations)," he said. "I think it harmed us. I think torturing harmed us. I have a number of anecdotes that could substantiate that. And I think it harmed our image in the world, but for us now to go back, I think would be a serious mistake."

John Kerry was a bit more frank, saying on "This Week":

"Dick Cheney has shown through the years, frankly, a disrespect for the constitution for sharing of information to Congress and a [dis]respect for the law and I'm not surprised that he's upset about this."

But will these strong statements in opposition be enough to unseat the idea that torture is justifiable in a civil society?

Perhaps not.

The media has been slammed (by other members of the media) for cosigning much of Cheney's claims. There was a widely panned op-ed published in the New York Times by a writer/novelist who openly accuses U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder of playing politics while saying that Holder's decision "serves to delegitimize our government itself." Andrew Sullivan dismissed the Fox News interview, writing:

"When it comes to Cheney, one of the most incompetent vice-presidents in the country's history, with a record of two grotesquely botched wars, war crimes and a crippling debt, Chris Wallace sounds like a teenage girl interviewing the Jonas Brothers. "

In addition, a Washington Post puff piece on Saturday which made it seem like Khalid Sheik Mohammed was really happy to help us discover the inner secrets of terrorism (after a few rounds with the drills and waterboarding sessions) was eviscerated at the Politico, Salon, and the Daily Dish, with Andrew Sullivan coming off vacation to say:

What is interesting to me is the Washington Post's editorial and institutional position in favor of not calling waterboarding and sleep deprivation what they have always been called in every court of law and every society including the US in recent times: torture. They refuse to use the word "torture" for an act that is memorialized in Cambodia's museum of torture. That's how deeply the Washington Post is enmeshed in the pro-torture forces in Washington. The refusal to use this word is a clear, political act by the Post in defense of the Bush administration's torture and abuse policies. It places the Washington Post as an adjunct to the Bush-Cheney policy of torturing thousands of prisoners across every theater of war and across the globe.

However, in all the din and angry reactions the articles, interviews, and reactions brought bubbling to the surface, there is still one question that I have not heard answered. If Cheney's assertions are true, and there are those who believe that protecting the nation comes before any rule of law or constitutional ideal, what do these people think they are saving?

RAW DATA: Transcript of Cheney on 'FOX News Sunday' [Fox News]
Cheney Offers Sharp Defense of C.I.A. Interrogation Tactics [NY Times]
Bill Clinton and the Meaning of "Is" [Slate]
What is the Rule of Law? [University of Iowa]
Dick Cheney And The Rule Of Law [Swampland]
Cheney digs in [Politico]
Believe Me, It's Torture [Vanity Fair]
McCain says CIA torture probe 'a mistake' [UPI]
Kerry Slams Cheney on 'This Week' [ABC News]
The C.I.A. in Double Jeopardy [NY Times]
Chris Wallace, A Teenage Girl Interviewing The Jonas Brothers [The Daily Dish]
How a Detainee Became An Asset [Washington Post]
Post Story Blosters Cheney [Politico]
The Washington Post's Cheney-ite defense of torture [Salon]
The Washington Post's Support For Torture [The Daily Dish]