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Battle Lines in Torture Debate Harden


Former Vice President Dick Cheney and several religious leaders are the latest to add their voices to the national debate over harsh interrogation techniques used on some terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.

The political battle lines in the torture debate seem to be hardening.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney told the CBS program Face the Nation that harsh questioning techniques authorized during the Bush administration helped to stop terrorist attacks that were in the planning stages.

"No regrets. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I'm convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives," he said. "I think if you look at this intelligence program when things are quieter 20 or 30 years from now, you will be able to look back on this and say this is one of the great success stories of American intelligence."

Mr. Cheney said the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding forced useful information from terrorism suspects including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But opponents of the techniques, which they refer to as torture, are just as determined to keep demanding accountability from those who approved the policy.

"One of our priorities for 2009 is to advocate for an independent, non-partisan commission of inquiry to investigate torture policies and practices since 9/11, so that we know what safeguards are needed to assure that torture never happens again," said the Reverend Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Killmer and other activists want a broader investigation into the torture allegations than those already being pursued by the Justice Department and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Religious leaders opposed to torture are speaking out in the wake of recent public opinion polls that show the American public is divided on whether harsh interrogation techniques are justified to protect the country from future terrorist attacks.

"It is almost a 50-50 issue in the polls. Some people worry that maybe we occasionally do need very strong tactics and occasionally do need to sacrifice some civil liberties for the sake of fighting terrorism," said John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

President Barack Obama has outlawed the controversial interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration, in part because Mr. Obama believes the information gleaned from the terrorist suspects could have been obtained in other ways.

"So I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe," he said. "But I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking short cuts that undermine who we are."

Opposition Republicans are resisting calls for a massive review of Bush administration interrogation policies, fearing that could lead to political persecution.

"If we are going to ask lawyers who were asked to give legal opinions, if we are going to investigate them, jeopardize their careers and second guess them, then where does that stop? Do we not also have to look at the people who asked for those techniques, the people who approved those techniques?" said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says an independent inquiry would be hard to control once it began, and he says Obama administration officials worry that it would become a huge political distraction for a new president trying to get his domestic agenda through the Congress.

"You will hear complaints about show trials and politicization of legal issues, and then there is this question of where do you stop? I think a lot of people, including senior Democrats and the White House, are concerned about this," he said.

Religious opponents of torture say they are less concerned with the politics of the issue than doing the right thing.

Linda Gustitus, the president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, says her group has launched a major effort to convince the public that any form of torture is morally wrong and should be banned.

"We've made it a priority to ask faith leaders to speak to their congregations about the immorality of torture and the need for people of faith to be vocal and visible about opposing it," she said.

But former Vice President Cheney is equally adamant that the national security changes made by the Obama administration have left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

"Then I think it is fair to argue, and I do argue, that means in the future we are not going to have the same safeguards we have had for the last eight years," he said.

An internal Justice Department inquiry reportedly is near completion that criticizes some Bush administration lawyers for writing legal opinions that justified the harsh interrogation techniques. But several news agencies say the report does not recommend prosecuting the former officials who authorized the use of the techniques.

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