Panetta at the Pentagon

PANETTA AT THE PENTAGON…. As part of a large shake-up of the Obama administration’s national security team, Leon Panetta will make the transition from leading the CIA to leading the Defense Department. He will, oddly enough, be the first actual Democrat to head the Pentagon in more than 14 years.

There’s reason for some optimism with this nomination. Joe Klein noted the other day:

Panetta seems the perfect man for Sec Def at this time. He’s been working the major war zones as Director of Central Intelligence the past few years, so he’s familiar with the strategic challenges he’ll be facing. Most important, Panetta has a history as a dedicated budget cutter. He was chair of the House Budget Committee in the late 1980s and Bill Clinton’s budget director (and later chief of staff). And the most important job that the next SecDef will have will be budget-cutting.

That sounds about right. President Obama intends to find $400 billion in savings from defense spending over the next 12 years, and Panetta is just the guy to do it.

But it’s also worth noting that Panetta, unlike one of his recent predecessors (let’s call him “Donald R.”), is an uncompromising opponent of torture. In 2008, for example, Panetta wrote, “Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law.”

Before that, Panetta had a piece right here in the Washington Monthly on the subject. It’s worth re-reading given his new position.

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” It’s what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

This won’t represent a shift — Bob Gates has done fine work — but it’s a reminder about the kind of values Panetta will bring to the job.