Whether Obama likes it or not, a full-on torture debate has been unleashed, with calls from both Cheneyites and the anti-torture left to release more classified material. I find myself ever-more persuaded by Mark Danner's formulation:

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved. That this has not yet happened is the reason why, despite the innumerable reports and studies and revelations that have given us a rich and vivid picture of the Bush administration's policies of torture, we as a society have barely advanced along this path. We have not so far managed, despite all the investigations, to produce a bipartisan, broadly credible, and politically decisive effort, and pronounce authoritatively on whether or not these activities accomplished anything at all in their stated and still asserted purpose: to protect the security interests of the country.

This cannot be accomplished through the press; for the same institutional limitations that lead journalists to keep repeating Bush and Cheney's insistence about the "legality" of torture make it impossible for the press alone, no matter how persuasive the leaks it brings to the public, to make a politically decisive judgment on the value of torture. What is lacking is not information or revelation but political credibility. What is needed is not more disclosures but a broadly persuasive judgment, delivered by people who can look at all the evidence, however highly classified, and can claim bipartisan respect on the order of the Watergate Select Committee or the 9/11 Commission, on whether or not torture made Americans safer.

This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture. By all accounts, it is likely that the intelligence harvest that can be attributed directly to the "alternative set of procedures" is meager. But whatever information might have been gained, it must be assessed and then judged against the great costs, legal, moral, political, incurred in producing it.

"Torture's harvest, whatever it may truly be," Danner adds, "is very unlikely to have outweighed those costs." Let's find out once and for all.

--Michael Crowley