The debate over interrogation of the three top-level al-Qaeda leaders who were subjected to waterboarding is entering the honest phase. The first phase was the “this is the worst thing that has happened in the history of the earth” handwringing on the left. The second phase was the “who gives a crap about the organizer of 9/11″ response of the right.

Now we have reached the third, and most honest, phase with Dick Cheney’s call for a release of the memoranda detailing the plots which were stopped, and lives saved, based on the information obtained from these three leaders:

Then the American people can make a decision. In order to avoid waterboarding in less than a handful of extraordinary situations, what are we willing to sacrifice? If the memoranda to which Cheney is referring say what he says they say, then alongside the photos and videos of waterboarding, we can see photos of lives saved, airplanes which never exploded, and cities which still live.

This is not fear-mongering by someone seeking to defend Bush policies on interrogation. The potential loss of a city, or multiple cities, was the estimation of Andrew Sullivan, one of the most outspoken critics of waterboarding.

In 2006, The New Yorker asked numerous pundits to answer the question “What if 9/11 never happened?” Sullivan laid out a scenario in which al-Qaeda, due to lack of action by George Bush (it’s always his fault) grew larger and more dangerous. In 2006, the new President Al Gore finally hit out at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, but it was too late:

Write this date down now: October 23, 2006. It’s the day we finally slipped into the reality of the world many of us have feared for several years now. The Islamofascists—maybe that term won’t be so stigmatized in polite circles any longer—have struck.

The synchronization—five Western cities, if you include Tel Aviv and Moscow, within one hour of each other—suggests a sophisticated operation. There are poignant reports on CNN of text messages sent from the subway cars in the few minutes before the gas killed the passengers. They finish mid-sentence. London seems to be the worst hit so far. Given that the attacks happened at rush hour, and we don’t even know how many there were—ten? Twenty?

The BBC is sticking to “more than a dozen”—it’s impossible to know how many people may have died. I’m seeing experts on Fox saying the swiftness of the deaths suggests cyanide. But how were the chemical weapons unleashed? ….

Fox News keeps running the London footage….The sight of those piles of limp bodies being pulled out of the bowels of Victoria Station is something I won’t easily forget. It’s the Blitz in reverse. When Hitler struck, Londoners went into the tubes to escape the carnage. Al Qaeda has turned that refuge into a mass tomb.

Meanwhile, chaos in NYC. A blogger who was on the path train under the World Trade Center (remember 1993?) has already posted one account: “The first thing I noticed was a weird smell—like almonds. All I could see was blackness and then the coughing and screaming. I wasn’t on the train yet so I simply turned and ran for the exits. I held my breath, but my eyes started watering and I felt as if I was going to puke. A big guy on the up escalator dropped like a professionally demolished skyscraper. Others on the platform seemed to be going into convulsions.”

To recap: We now have reports of up to 30 separate gas attacks in subway systems in New York, D.C., Moscow, and London, and a shower of chemical-tipped rockets directly into Tel Aviv from somewhere in the Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon….The death count is now estimated in the thousands. Some tunnels collapsed in New York’s and London’s subways, apparently exacerbating the toll….

Sullivan then fast forwarded to a year later, after Pakistan’s central government had been taken over by Islamists and its nuclear weapons no longer were secure:

The NYT reports that U.S. intelligence has picked up signs that Pakistan has funneled nuclear material to Al Qaeda cells in the U.S. The reports come from leaked documents outlining after-the-fact warnings picked up at various ports—specifically San Diego and Philadelphia. I don’t know what to think. It’s a little hard to believe that our only intelligence on this kind of thing is after this stuff may have already been imported….

Gore called for calm. He had the right words, but this time they didn’t soothe. I kept waiting for his assurance that Al Qaeda didn’t have the capacity to detonate dirty nukes in various cities. But the words didn’t come. He seemed composed himself. But something about his demeanor suggested … well, it suggested he wasn’t any surer about that than any of us are. And so we wait … For some reason, I went to the window and took a picture of what lay outside. I wanted some memento of life before. Before what? I don’t know. We’re waiting to know that as well.

These scenarios are not far-fetched any more now than in 2001 when 9/11 took place, or 2006 when Sullivan wrote his counter-history. The Madrid and London train bombings, attempts at mass airliner attacks, and the conventional attacks which never took place because, as Dick Cheney asserts, plots were foiled as a result of interrogations.

Pakistan has numerous nuclear weapons, and its central government has been unstable. One news service recently rant an article titled “Pakistan on course to become Islamist state, U.S. experts say.” Nuclear materials in Russia, the Democrats reminded us during the 2008 campaign, are not secure. In the event nuclear weapons fell into the hands of al-Qaeda, does anyone doubt that al-Qaeda would use the weapons?

And if a President of the United States had information, from the best sources available, that a nuclear weapon, or nuclear materials which could be used in a “dirty bomb,” had been or were about to be smuggled into the United States, is there anything that President should not do? If a leader of al-Qaeda — or a member of the Pakistani military — believed to know the location of the nuclear weapons and the plans of attack were captured by the CIA in Pakistan, would waterboarding be off limits?

If your response is that there was no evidence that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew of a nuclear attack, then you are heading down a slippery slope. If there is any situation, such as an imminent nuclear attack, in which waterboarding could be used, then you are arguing over details and degree, not a moral absolute.

And if you are morally absolute as to waterboarding, then please tell us, which American city you would sacrifice? This is the honest debate which needs to be had, once again.

UPDATE: Rich Lowry has a good post, The Case for the ‘Torture Memos’ (h/t Hot Air). Moe Lane has this: Cheney Doubles Down on ‘torture’ memos. Ace of Spades HQ notes: “So, Dick won’t be taking W.’s advice to keep quiet.”

Doug Ross notes how once Obama released some memos, he opened a Pandora’s Box for further litigation.

Andrew Sullivan is renewing his call for a “truth commission” although he doesn’t really want the truth but a prosecution: “Decisions to prosecute could be made after all the material is laid out.”

Marc Thiessen writing in the Washington Post, The CIA’s Questioning Worked:

In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists “did not make us safer.” This is patently false. The proof is in the memos Obama made public — in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media.

Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that “the CIA believes ‘the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.’ . . .

Trust me, this is not the debate people like Andrew Sullivan really want to have because at the end of the day, the vast majority of Americans will say that we are not willing to sacrifice any cities. As former Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote:

This Court has gone far toward accepting the doctrine that civil liberty means the removal of all restraints from these crowds and that all local attempts to maintain order are impairments of the liberty of the citizen. The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

UPDATE No. 2: And now this report: CIA Confirms: Waterboarding 9/11 Mastermind Led to Info that Aborted 9/11-Style Attack on Los Angeles and a take on the report at Hot Air.

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