Thinking of Dick Cheney as Cicero





Mr. Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island and author of Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? He is a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

Everybody agrees that some prisoners held at Guantanamo received a certain amount of rough treatment. Those on the American political left call this treatment "torture." They say it was criminal conduct, and they want somebody held accountable for this wrongdoing. Above all, they'd love to see former Vice President Dick Cheney branded a criminal.

Those on the right, by contrast, call the rough treatment at Guantanamo "enhanced interrogation," and they hold that valuable national security information was obtained as a result of these not-very-gentle sessions.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the left is correct when they say that it was in fact torture, a violation of U.S. and/or international law. And let's make the further assumption that the right is correct when they say that this "torture" elicited information helpful to national security. In that case, what do we do with Cheney? Should he be stigmatized as a criminal, either formally by a court or informally by a non-judicial "truth commission"? Or should he be applauded as a patriot?

Look at an analogous case, that of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, politician and philosopher of ancient Rome. It was the year 63 B.C. and Cicero was Roman consul. In that office he had to deal with Catiline -- a talented, ruthless and ambitious Roman senator from an old patrician family, who was plotting to seize power.

Catiline hoped to do what Sulla had done before him and Caesar would do after, that is, make himself sole ruler of the city and the Roman Republic. Catiline had confederates at key places throughout Italy, including Rome itself. One of his men headed an army assembling near what is now the city of Florence. In Rome the plan was to throw the city into a state of panic by means of widespread arson and assassination, including the murder of Cicero. With the city in chaos, the army from Florence would attack, power would be seized and Catiline would become dictator.

Cicero, however, foiled the plot. By adroit detective work he learned what was happening, arrested a number of key conspirators and revealed the plot to the Senate. The Senate, convinced that strong measures were urgently needed, passed what is known as "the Ultimate Decree" -- that is, a resolution that urged the consul to take whatever steps might be needed "for the safety of the republic." That was a euphemistic way of saying: "Put the conspirators to death -- without trial." To the mind of the Senate, the need for Roman security did not leave room for the niceties of due process (an attitude similar to Cheney's).

So Cicero, following the Senate's advice, put the prisoners to death. Strictly speaking, the executions were illegal (as we are supposing Cheney's actions to have been), since Roman law did not permit the execution of a citizen without trial. And the fact that the Senate had authorized the executions didn't make them legal, for the Senate was neither a legislative nor a judicial body. It was simply an extraordinarily influential advisory body.

Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d'etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero -- a reprobate named Publius Clodius -- indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.

There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation's leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.

The ancient Roman left should not have attempted to punish Cicero for his patriotic illegalities, and neither, I submit, should the present-day American left attempt to punish Dick Cheney for his patriotic illegalities.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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Tim Matthewson - 6/8/2009

Ya the difference between the right and left is that the lefties are always wrong and the right is always right.
But by may way of reckoning the only thing that Cheney did right was to stand up with his daughter and her partner and indicate his pride in her regardless of her orientation. The rest of his lies deserve to be procesuted as a deliberate effort to subvert American democrary in the name of the permanent Republican majority.


Alexander Wolfe - 6/2/2009

I think the lengthy debate above regarding specific actions of the Bush administration and Congress goes a long way towards undermining Carlin's thesis, in that the simplistic similarities between Cicero and Cheney are not so easy to make a case for after all. Carlin makes a poor historical analogy; there is a substantial difference between plotters of a coup and terrorists. Additionally, I see no explanation as to how the Roman Republic was served by immediately putting the conspirators to death, which would seem to be necessary to bolster the argument that detainees must immediately be tortured. Lastly, it would be interesting to know if the Romans put to death anyone who Cicero was just awfully sure was involved in the conspiracy, but actually was completely innocent. That seems a pertinent question to address as well.

Trite historical analogies that make critical assumptions are of no use in helping us decide what we should do with modern day terrorists. In fact, historical analogies are completely unnecessary, as we have at hand nearly all of the facts we need to make an argument about torture now, as demonstrated by the comments above.


art eckstein - 6/1/2009

Cheney did everything he could to avoid service. All right--draft EVADER.


James Lee Winningham - 5/31/2009

I don't know that I accept the premise of this argument, since the country was not under imminent threat in 2002, and this is not hindsight talking, since there was ample evidence before the Iraq war that the case for war was flimsy. Can you really compare Cheney to Cicero and say he was doing patriotic, albeit illegal acts? The illegal acts, as we are figuring out now, were being used to stage or, at the very least, confirm a false assumption that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the country. That, to me, is something different than the Cicero situation.


William J. Stepp - 5/31/2009

I have no brief for Cheney, who among other things was a draft-dodger (unlike Cicero).

As a libertarian, I hold no brief for Cheney, but I would point out that he didn't evade the draft, if that term means he acted illegally. Everything he did pertaining to the draft was legal and sanctioned by the Selective Service System. Google Tim Noah's Slate article on Cheney's draft-related activities during the 1960s.


art eckstein - 5/28/2009

I think you will have a hard time proving that Congress was not fully informed.

Pelosi herself says her aides were informed in Feb. 2003 about what ws going on. That's what she said at the famous Thursday news conference. So the very latest that prominent Democrats were informed is Feb. 2003.

Again, you may be right about a lot of this, GC, though this depends on accepting the Democrats' word for it--and if they were certain on their facts, why did they vote last week to block an investigation of who knew what and when? So, I don't see a mens rea. At least, not yet. But you make some good points.


Guy Bruce Courts - 5/27/2009

Art,

<< There is no doubt that whatever happened in Sept. 2002, by Feb. 2003 Pelosi and the other Democrats had been informed of waterboarding by the CIA and the Bushies. Administrations engaged in what they believe are criminal acts do not inform the opposition party. Nor did the informing of the opposition leadership lead to an explosion. Pelosi and Rockefeller clearly were okay with what ws going on; there was one letter of mild concern from Jane Harmon. >>
No one in Congress was told that the CIA was going to start torturing in 2002. Nancy Pelosi and Porter Goss were told (after the CIA had already tortured Abu Zubayda) that the CIA might waterboard in the furture. After the fact briefings are legal only if the President issues a letter of “Findings” within 2 days of the action. This of course didn’t happen. Another “patriotic illegality”. Bob Graham and his little notebooks say he was not told about waterboarding at all. Jay Rockafeller was not at the briefing when the CIA told Pat Roberts about waterboarding. The CIA can’t even prove Jane Harman was informed about waterboarding in Feb. 2003. Ole Lindsey’s right “if you were trying to commit a crime…you would not go around telling people on the other side of the aisle about it.” The public record in fact shows that the Bush administration didn’t tell the Democrats. Isn’t that evidence of criminal intent?
The only 2 Democrats to be fully briefed on the torture program were both fighting adainst the program. Jane Harmon wrote a letter to Scott Mueller objecting to the program on policy grounds and basically asking for that missing presidential finding. Jay Rockefeller was busy being slapped by the CIA for asking for a copy of that nasty old CIA IG report which called into question the legallity of the torture program.
The 2005-2006 the CIA while fighting to keep the torture program alive did manage to brief Ted Stevens, Thad Cochran, John McCain, Bill Frist, Duncan Hunter and Pete Hoekstra but no Democrats.
<< I'm not trumpeting John Yoo. But in terms of prosecuting a case, a person acting with the explicit approval of a lawyer's ruling, and informing the Congress and the opposition party of what is going on--very hard to prosecute .>>
If evidence can be provided that Congress was not fully and properly informed (including dissenting views from the Military, FBI, and fellow members of the administration) that would undermine both legs of your argument concerning prosecution.
Guy Courts


art eckstein - 5/26/2009

I'm not relying on Cheney. I'm relying on Obama.

There is no doubt that whatever happened in Sept. 2002, by Feb. 2003 Pelosi and the other Democrats had been informed of waterboarding by the CIA and the Bushies. Administrations engaged in what they believe are criminal acts do not inform the opposition party. Nor did the informing of the opposition leadership lead to an explosion. Pelosi and Rockefeller clearly were okay with what ws going on; there was one letter of mild concern from Jane Harmon.

I'm not trumpeting John Yoo. But in terms of prosecuting a case, a person acting with the explicit approval of a lawyer's ruling, and informing the Congress and the opposition party of what is going on--very hard to prosecute.


Guy Bruce Courts - 5/26/2009

Mr. Eckstein

<< People who are committing illegal acts do not inform Congress. An administration that thinks it is doing something illegal does not inform the opposition party (Nixon didn't inform the Democrats about Watergate, for instance.) But Congress was informed of all that was going on here, including Democrats Jane Harmon and Nacy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeler. This had defintely occurred by Febr. 2003 (no one disputes this), though possibly as early as Sept. 2002 (if Pelosi is "misremembering").>>

The basis for your argument here is that congress was informed therefore no legal action can be taken. Watergate happened prior to the Church committee ruling that the intelligence committee members must be informed of actions sanctioned by the president. The fact that the Bush administration chose to “inform” the barest possible minimum number of committee members is telling. It kills two birds with one stone. First, it satisfies the legal requirement of notification and second, it prevents any push back by congress because four informed members in congress can’t change anything no matter how loud they scream,especially when congress is controled by the opposing party.

You also state unequivocally “Congress was informed of all that was going on here…” You can’t possibly know that. If there’s evidence that Congress was not told that experts within the administration disputed the legality of the methods used then congress cannot make and informed judgment about right and wrong regarding these methods. If that were the case then those who misinformed would once again be responsible for their actions. Which, if you can get past all the noise that Hannity, Limbough, and O’Reilly are making, is in fact what Nancy Pelosi is arguing.

I would also like to point out that NPR is reporting the ACLU has proof from an ongoing court case that Alberto Gonzales while the White House Atty, not the Atty Gen, was approving the Torture of Abu Zubaydah months before the Aug. Torture Memos were even written. Couple that with the breaking news that Cheney may have authorized torture to justify an illegal war in Iraq and you, have a whole drawer full of illegal acts that unfortunately for Mr. Carlin can not be labeled “patriotic illegalities.”

<< A cardinal point of criminal law is that such openness about one's conduct shows that there was no "mens rea"--a phrase Cicero would have been familiar with. It means no "guilty mind". And a cardinal point of criminal law is that this is prima facie evidence that the accused did not think he/she was committing a crime. (And of course the Bush administration had legal opinions that it was not.) This makes it very hard to get a conviction in court. >>

Let me reiterate, the fact that the administration informed Congress in no way proves the veracity of the information. The legal memos of John Yoo that you so proudly wave around take on a certain taint if you factor in the possiblity that the Cheney gang were torturing well before the August memos were even written. Which would seem to indicate they were cover your ass memos written after the fact. Don’t we meed an investigation to prove your legal theorys.

<< The claim (made as recently as Thursday by Cheney) that useful information was gotten out of the grand total of three Al-Qaeda leaders who were waterboarded is not disputed by Pres. Obama, and is an additional factor here. In his latest statements on this, Pres. Obama's argument has NOT been that no useful information was obtained (that's a line originally pushed by the Left), but rather than the information could have been gotten by gentler means. Maybe so (maybe not). But if useful information was gotten from these A-Q leaders, it makes conviction in an American court even more unlikely. >>

President Obama is trying as hard as VP Cheney to avoid an investigation. I think if you rely on Cheney for truth you will be disappointed.

Guy Courts


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

I have no brief for Cheney, who among other things was a draft-dodger (unlike Cicero).

But you are facing no mens rea, actions taken with the formal approval of lawyers, and actions that successfully extracted information, as Pres. Obama has himself indicated.

It's an impossible case to prosecute, legally.

In practical political terms, the Left had better drop this. The Right is loving it as a topic, and this is because it is becoming easier and easier to paint the Left as defenders of monsters who had killed thousands of innocent Americans and wanted to kill tens of thousands more, and as persecutors of Americans who thought they were acting legally and thought they were defending the U.S. (and, according even to Pres. Obama, they did).


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

He's not.

Cicero was also a soldier for Rome (first as an officer in the civil war of 91-88 B.C.; later a commander in southeast Turkey in 51-50). Cheney avoided military service.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2009

In short, yes.

Not for their sake, but for ours.


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

Mr. D,

I also posted this above. But I think you didn't see it.

People who are committing illegal acts do not inform Congress. An administration that thinks it is doing something illegal does not inform the opposition party (Nixon didn't inform the Democrats about Watergate, for instance.) But Congress was informed of all that was going on here, including Democrats Jane Harmon and Nacy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeler. This had defintely occurred by Febr. 2003 (no one disputes this), though possibly as early as Sept. 2002 (if Pelosi is "misremembering").

A cardinal point of criminal law is that such openness about one's conduct shows that there was no "mens rea"--a phrase Cicero would have been familiar with. It means no "guilty mind". And a cardinal point of criminal law is that this is prima facie evidence that the accused did not think he/she was committing a crime. (And of course the Bush administration had legal opinions that it was not.) This makes it very hard to get a conviction in court.

The claim (made as recently as Thursday by Cheney) that useful information was gotten out of the grand total of three Al-Qaeda leaders who were waterboarded is not disputed by Pres. Obama, and is an additional factor here. In his latest statements on this, Pres. Obama's argument has NOT been that no useful information was obtained (that's a line originally pushed by the Left), but rather than the information could have been gotten by gentler means. Maybe so (maybe not). But if useful information was gotten from these A-Q leaders, it makes conviction in an American court even more unlikely.

Finally, the Left should be very wary of pleading the "rights" of Al-Q monsters such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Leaving aside the morality, this would be a losing position politically with the American people, and will reopen for the Republicans the issue of national defense.


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

There is plenty of evidence that useful information was obtained by "expanded interrogation techniques". The best evidence is Pres. Obam's statement last Tuesday that whatever information was obtained could have been obtained by gentler methods. Perhaps so (perhaps not). But in any case, the inescapable implication was that useful information was obtained.


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

Mr. D, do you really think that as a practical matter and a moral matter, anyone should care about the human rights of someone who masterminded the murder of 3,000 innocent people and was preparing for more?


Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2009

Well, this citizen, rational or not, would expect the official to take responsibility for any official actions. Whether or not it was effective, torture is illegal and immoral, and therefore they should be brought to justice. That justice may be tempered with understanding, even sympathy, but it must, nonetheless, be just.


david ross gansel - 5/25/2009

let's pose this in abstract terms.
grant, for the sake of discussion, that torture may or may not be a valid source of info. grant also that torture is illegal and immoral, that is to say morally "wrong."
a hypothetical official is responsible for the safety and security of a hypothetical population. if the official believes that the population can by saved from destruction by torture, where does his duty lie? what course of action would a rational member of the population demand of the official?


art eckstein - 5/25/2009

People who are committing illegal acts do not inform Congress. An administration that thinks it is doing something illegal does not inform the opposition party (Nixon didn't inform the Democrats about Watergate, for instance.) But Congress was informed of all that was going on here, including Democrats Jane Harmon and Nacy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeler, defintely by Febr. 2003 (no one disputes this), though possibly as early as Sept. 2002 (if Pelosi is "misremembering").

A cardinal point of criminal law is that such openness about one's conduct shows that there was no "mens rea"--a phrase Cicero would have been familiar with. It means no "guilty mind". And a cardinal point of criminal law is that this is prima facie evidence that the accused did not think he/she was committing a crime. (And of course the Bush administration had legal opinions that it was not.) This makes it very hard to get a conviction in court.

The claim (made as recently as Thursday by Cheney) that useful information was gotten out of the grand total of three Al-Qaeda leaders who were waterboarded is not disputed by Pres. Obama, and is an additional factor here. In his latest statements Pres. Obama's argument has NOT been that no useful info was gotten (that's a line originally pushed by the Left), but rather than the info could have been gotten by gentler means. Maybe so. But if useful information was gotten from these A-Q leaders, it makes conviction in an American court even more unlikely.

Finally, the Left should be very wary of pleading the "rights" of Al-Q monsters such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Leaving aside the morality, this would be a losing position politically with the American people, and will reopen for the Republicans the issue of national defense.


Lisa Kazmier - 5/25/2009

Exactly. Hence a comparison to anything smacking as having a shred of logic or practicality is ridiculous. This was panic, pure and simple. And evil. And the "left" are supposed to be full of moral relativists...LOL. What happened to law & order?


Maia Cowan - 5/25/2009

"Above all, they'd love to see former Vice President Dick Cheney branded a criminal."

That's where the author lost me. He seems to be say the "American political left" only object to torture because the objections are their pretext for attacking a political opponent. Sadly, no. We object to torture because it's wrong.

The author also takes for granted that the torture was both necessary and effective. Again, sadly, no. It was neither.


jeff curtin - 5/25/2009

Cicero was a scholar, philosopher and a lawyer. At his peak he was the most popular man in Rome. He acted to suppress an uprising that was perceived to hurt the republic. He had the conspirators strangled and afterward worried about being punished for his illegal acts.

How is Dick Cheney, in any way, like Cicero?


Jonathan Dresner - 5/24/2009

Aside from the absurdity of mapping a political spectrum that barely works in the present onto the Roman past, this analogy fails on several points.

First, there's no evidence that American torture protected any Americans, much less "America."

Second, the evidence available strongly suggests that the torture was intended not to "protect" the United States, but to justify an American-led assault on Iraq which has demonstrably harmed both Iraqis and America's interests.

Third, the account here makes Cicero's decision to act illegally look like a desparate political move rather than a necessary evil: if the conspirators were in custody, how could they initiate a coup? Instead, Cicero acted to assuage the Senate, to calm them.

Finally, I'm curious about the "traditional Roman attitude" cited here. Is it Sulla's proscriptions that are being invoked?


Nancy REYES - 5/24/2009

Ah, but how many Americans know about Cicero?

You are correct in your evaluation.

However, the "marxist" take on this is that Catelline was a patriot, and was only plotting his takeover to benefit the poor masses...so "they" killed him, and later "killed" poor Caesar who was only trying to take over to help the poor.


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