The Bushies, that is. I was so preoccupied with the presidential primaries that I almost forgot about that guy who keeps hanging around in the White House, despite the nation's fervent desire that he disappear. And I'm sure I wasn't alone in my memory lapse. With the news so full of Obama, Clinton, McCain and Huckabee, Bush and Cheney had started to seem like dead men walking.
But I was making the classic horror movie mistake. You know ... you let down your guard for an instant, and that's when you realize that the dead men walking are actually vampires -- and they're stalking you.
That's what happened this week. While we were all fixated on who will be the next president, loyalists to the outgoing president took advantage of our collective distraction to try to leave a last gruesome legacy for the American people: torture.
Remember waterboarding? In most versions of waterboarding, detainees are blindfolded and then strapped to a board. After that, they have water poured into their mouth and nose, sometimes through a cloth or cellophane (to enhance the sensation of simultaneous smothering and drowning). It was a favorite interrogation method of the Spanish Inquisition. U.S. courts have recognized it as torture, and in past wars, the U.S. government prosecuted it as a war crime.
Not anymore! While the rest of us were obsessing over the 600 possible methods of counting delegates, the Bush administration was busily conducting a PR campaign on behalf of waterboarding.
It began last week. First, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey told Congress that no one could be investigated or prosecuted for "whatever was done" as part of a covert CIA interrogation program because the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel had given its blessing to a bunch of secret "whatevers." Then CIA Director Michael V. Hayden openly acknowledged, for the first time, that "whatever" had, in fact, included waterboarding, which was used on at least three Al Qaeda suspects.
Did Hayden blush to confess that U.S. intelligence agencies were incapable of getting critical intelligence through means other than torture? Nope. Along with National Intelligence Director J. Michael McConnell, Hayden suggested that waterboarding might well be handy again in the future.
The White House was equally blase about waterboarding. White House spokesman Tony Fratto defended its legality and asserted that whether we waterboard more detainees in the future "will depend on circumstances." What's more, Fratto emphasized, it's the president who will make the call, not Congress. Vice President Dick Cheney called the interrogation of the three suspects who were waterboarded "a good thing," and cheering from the sidelines, Antonin Scalia, the administration's favorite Supreme Court justice, mused in a radio interview that it would be "absurd" to assume any clear constitutional restrictions on "so-called torture" when potential terrorist threats are at issue.
The administration's PR push on waterboarding doesn't enjoy much support, either internationally or here at home. Our closest allies, the British, reaffirmed Tuesday that they consider waterboarding a form of torture prohibited by international law. That's an opinion shared by the U.N. human rights commissioner.
Here in the U.S., Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidates, have condemned waterboarding as torture. They've been joined by the leading GOP presidential candidates, John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Speaking in October 2007, McCain said that waterboarding "is not a complicated procedure. It is torture." In December 2007, Huckabee added his voice to McCain's: "Waterboarding is torture, and torture violates the moral code of Americans and jeopardizes the country's security."
Just for good measure, on Wednesday the Senate joined the House in passing legislation that prohibits the CIA from using waterboarding or any similar "harsh" interrogation techniques.
But President Bush says he'll veto the bill. And here's what I don't get. Bush has less than a year left in office. His approval ratings are already abysmally low. Why is he determined to compound his problems by going down in history as the first president to openly order and justify torture? Is this really the legacy he wants to leave behind?
The task for the next president, Democrat or Republican, is clear. Very soon after taking office, our next president needs to lay this monster to rest by unambiguously repudiating waterboarding and all forms of torture.
That's the easy part of the next president's task, though. The hard part? Prying the thumbscrews out of the Bush administration's cold, dead hands.