Bush Says Waterboarding Was Legal, But Was It Moral?

President George W. Bush with Matt Lauer
screenshot/NBC News

In his interview with NBC News' Matt Lauer to plug his new memoir, "Decision Points" former President Bush defended the use of waterboarding on captured terrorists by saying he authorized it because his administration's lawyers said it was legal.

An excerpt:

BUSH: We believe America's going to be attacked again.  There's all kinds of intelligence comin' in.  And— and— one of the high value al Qaeda operatives was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the chief operating officer of al Qaeda… ordered the attack on 9/11.  And they say, "He's got information."  I said, "Find out what he knows.”   And so I said to our team, "Are the techniques legal?" He says, "Yes, they are."  And I said, "Use 'em."

LAUER: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?

BUSH: Because the lawyer said it was legal.  He said it did not fall within the Anti-Torture Act.  I'm not a lawyer., but you gotta trust the judgment of people around you and I do.

LAUER:  You say it's legal.  "And the lawyers told me."

BUSH: Yeah.

This opens an interesting line of questioning. Just because something is legal doesn't necessarily make it the moral choice.

It could be fascinating to see the former president grapple publicly with the question of how one squares waterboarding with morality.

That could be especially insightful into how the former president thinks since he is a born-again Christian who was very open about his personal religious transformation.

In the case of waterboarding, how does the ex-president make that technique, which many people consider torture, mesh with his faith?

Put plainly, the question for the ex-president is, as a Christian, does he believe Jesus would approve waterboarding?

How would the president navigate his way to an answer as both a Christian and the man with the ultimate responsibility for protecting the nation against its enemies, foreign and domestic.  I don't know. That's why it would be a great question to ask him.

But even without a discussion of the demands of Christianity and the compromises the American commander-in-chief must make between his faith and his job, there are the questions of narrow legalism and broader morality.

At one time slavery was legal, for instance. But there were many people even in the 18th and 19th centuries who knew it to be morally wrong even though it was legal.

In our own time, abortion is legal. But many, including the ex-president, believe it to be immoral and want to end it.

Thus, he well understands that just because something is legal, that doesn't make it right, at least not in the eyes of those who see a higher morality involved.

So it would have been interesting if Lauer had followed up with the question "But was waterboarding the morally right thing to do?"

It may be that Bush would have had a compelling answer to that question. We just don't know because the questions weren't apparently asked.

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