The abrupt conversational detour

THE ABRUPT CONVERSATIONAL DETOUR…. No one, least of all the White House, should be surprised.

Officials inside the Obama administration have grown discouraged by the abruptness with which the news over the killing of Osama bin Laden has turned into a debate over the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques and torture.

Just days after the al Qaeda header was killed in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the political conversation has shifted from the implications of the assassination to questions of whether the waterboarding of valuable detainees was crucial in gathering intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Defenders of the interrogation technique raised the issue, earning write-ups in several high-profile publications, including The New York Times and Time magazine. It was also put forward in most bin Laden-related news interviews with Obama officials.

The moral of the story is simple: the political world tends to talk about whatever Republicans want to talk about.

In this case, the immediate goal of Republicans was to ensure the Bush/Cheney administration received some, if not all, of the credit for the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Given recent history, that was a tough sell, so the focus quickly shifted to torture — Bush-era abuses led to intelligence that started the ball rolling, leading to Sunday.

We now know the GOP arguments are largely baseless, but the question itself was provocative enough to detour the conversation.

“I think this is a distraction from the broader picture, which is that this achievement was the result of years of painstaking work by our intelligence community that drew from multiple sources,” White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor said.

Well, yes, of course it’s a distraction. That’s how this game works.