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Commentary: Cheney says U.S. can torture but can't heal

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  • Paul Begala: In CNN interview, Cheney worried about Obama and big government
  • Begala says Cheney was key force behind use of torture and surveillance
  • He says Cheney pushed aggressive use of government to fight terrorism
  • Begala: Cheney criticizes government action on health care, economic recovery
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By Paul Begala
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Paul Begala says Cheney is hypocritical when he says he fears massive government expansion under Obama.

Paul Begala says Cheney is hypocritical when he says he fears massive government expansion under Obama.

(CNN) -- Dick Cheney has finally found the limits of government power.

In his interview with CNN's John King -- his first television interview since leaving the vice presidency -- Cheney revealed a view of federal power that is incoherent and hypocritical.

According to recently released legal memos from the Bush-Cheney administration, the former vice president believes that the federal government can ignore the First Amendment and suppress free speech and freedom of the press as part of its "war on terror."

An October 23, 2001, memo from Justice Department lawyers John C. Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty said, "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully."

Former Vice President Cheney also believes, according to these same memos, that the federal government can send troops to burst into the homes of American citizens without a search warrant, despite the Fourth Amendment's protection against such unreasonable searches. He believes that the federal government has the right to arrest an American citizen on American soil and hold him in prison without charges. He believes that the federal government can listen in on your phone conversations without a court order.

Cheney believes that the federal government can ignore the Geneva Conventions, binding treaties largely written by the United States, signed by the president and ratified by the Senate. He believes that the federal government can commit torture, despite laws and treaties making torture a crime.

As the Washington Post reported, "Starting in January, 2002, Cheney turned his attention to the practical business of crushing a captive's will to resist. The vice president's office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion of prisoners in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials."

The newspaper said, "Cheney and his allies ... did not originate every idea to rewrite or reinterpret the law, but fresh accounts from participants show that they translated muscular theories, from Yoo and others, into the operational language of government."

In fact, Yoo has said the federal government has the power to grab your young son and crush his private parts if the president thinks that will help the "war on terror."

Think I'm kidding? Here's the verbatim exchange from a debate between Yoo and Notre Dame professor Doug Cassel:

Cassel: If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty ...

Cassel: Also no law by Congress -- that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo ...

Yoo: I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.

Wow. That is a sick, twisted, sadistic world view. It is also a breathtakingly expansive view of federal power over citizens. Indeed, the position of Cheney and his allies seems to be that the federal government has limitless power over people. If the government can censor the free press, restrict free speech, listen in on your private conversations, burst into your home, take you away, hold you in prison without charges and torture you, it raises an interesting question: What on Earth does Dick Cheney think the federal government can't do?

Thanks to John King, we now know: Cheney believes that the government cannot help with health care, improve education or wean America off Middle East oil. I'm not kidding.

Cheney, whose authoritarian impulses run deep, is suddenly worried that the federal government might become too powerful under President Obama.

"I worry a lot," he told King, "that they're using the current set of economic difficulties to try to justify a massive expansion in the government, and much more authority for the government over the private sector. I don't think that's good. I don't think that's going to solve the problem."

Set aside the, umm, irony of a guy who is alive, thank God, because of government-provided health care opposing health care for taxpaying Americans. And set aside the hypocrisy of the Bush-Cheney Medicare prescription drug entitlement, the greatest expansion of the federal role in health care since President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Focus instead on Cheney's alarmist rhetoric: "a massive expansion in the government", "much more authority for the government." Cheney is comfortable with a government that has the authority to torture, imprison, censor and kill. Just not a government that has the capacity and compassion to write a health insurance policy or take on Big Oil.

I write this only hours after King's interview with Cheney, and yet I believe it will live in history. Right there, in his own words, Cheney gives historians a candid explication of his world view: that government may claim dictatorial powers when he and his ilk are in charge, but when we the people call on our government to act to address recession, illness and ignorance (made worse by Cheney's policies) well, then we've reached Cheney's boundaries of the government's power.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

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