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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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'Justifying' Torture: Two Big Lies

By Coleen Rowley and Ray McGovern
July 19, 2008

One can assume that former Attorney General John Ashcroft didn’t mean it to be funny, but his testimony on Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee might strike one as hilarious, were it not for the issue at hand — torture.

Ashcroft is the Attorney General who approved torture before he disapproved it, but committee members spared him accusations of flip-flopping.

He explained that he initially blessed the infamous torture memoranda drafted by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and others in mid-2002 because he (Ashcroft) believed it imperative to afford the President “the benefit of genuine doubt” regarding how to protect American lives in the “war on terror.”

But Ashcroft added that, despite this, when concerns about that earlier guidance for interrogations were brought to his attention, changing his mind “was not a hard decision for me.” A very flexible Attorney General.

“The benefit of genuine doubt?” Perhaps Ashcroft thought that this genteel way of looking at things would appeal to the poorly led, motley group calling itself the House Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan.

But the rest of us, whose time does not expire in five minutes, cannot buy his defense of torture.  For it is based on two demonstrable lies.

Lie Number One

According to Ashcroft, “The administration’s overriding goal…was to do everything in its power and within the limits of the law…to keep this country safe from terrorist attack.”

His is merely the latest in a string of torture-exculpating statements adduced to document a myth; namely, that the Bush administration, having failed to prevent the attacks of 9/11, pulled out all the stops to keep us safe from a second attack; and that one of the necessary measures introduced was torture.

It was a situational thing, you see. But even that explanation does not survive close scrutiny.

First, for those with a strong stomach, a sample of recent statements; then proof of their transparency in aiming to create an exculpatory myth:

-- On May 22, 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly discussed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques: “After Sept. 11, whatever was legal in the face of not just the attacks of Sept. 11, but the anthrax attacks that happened, we were in an environment in which saving America from the next attack was paramount.”

-- On June 5, 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden told Jim Angle of Fox News that it was fear of an imminent attack that led to the controversial interrogation practices — including waterboarding, which Hayden referred to as a “high-end interrogation technique.”

“Keep in mind…you have the nation suffering, reeling from a recent attack in which 3,000 citizens had been killed, until it was the collective judgment of the American government that these techniques would be appropriate and lawful in these circumstances.”

-- On June 26, 2008, testifying before the Conyers committee, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington added, with some flair: “Smoke was still rising…3,000 Americans were just killed.” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post used the quote to show how Addington “justified his legal reasoning” regarding enhanced interrogation techniques.

Since members of the Judiciary Committee did little to expose the myth, let us try to help.

Selective Urgency

The sense of pressing urgency conjured up by Bush administration folks to justify torture does not square with Coleen Rowley’s direct personal experience in the FBI.

As some will remember, the FBI's joint terrorism task force in Minneapolis had detained Zacarias Moussaoui on Aug. 16, 2001. Flight school pilots acting as whistleblowers had notified the FBI, against the wishes of their airline employer, of detailed information making Moussaoui the most suspicious student they had ever encountered.

French intelligence soon supplied further background confirming Moussaoui's fighting for a “foreign power” — Chechnyan rebels, whose leader was connected to al-Qaeda. By Aug. 23, the case was deemed so suspicious, it went all the way to the top of the intelligence community, to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, in a PowerPoint presentation entitled: "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.”

As Rowley revealed in her letter of May 21, 2002, to FBI Director Robert Mueller, there was considerable frustration in her FBI unit in Minneapolis over the inability of FBI headquarters to get its act together and present these facts pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to obtain the secret FISA Court’s permission to search Moussaoui’s personal effects and laptop computer in the days before 9-11.

Odd Reactions

But once the attacks took place on 9-11, confirming the Minneapolis FBI unit’s worst fears and finally overcoming FBI Headquarters’ reluctance to conduct further searches of Moussaoui’s belongings, there was still little sense of urgency.

At that point, Moussaoui sat atop the list of prime sources for information about any “second wave” of attacks. But the Justice Department persisted in its refusal to allow agents to attempt to interview Moussaoui even after the attacks.

During the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, the acting U.S. Attorney denied the unit permission to interview Moussaoui.

Rowley – having seen what just had transpired due, at least in part, to the FBI unit having accepted No for an answer in August – decided to go a rung higher by calling Justice officials in the FBI’s Command Post in Washington on the morning of Sept. 12.

In that conversation, Rowley repeatedly drew attention to the Supreme Court decision (New York v Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 1984) granting an “exigent-circumstances” exception to the Miranda rule in cases where an interview is judged necessary to protect public safety.

Rowley was told by Justice Department officials that “no such public emergency existed.” This is what Rowley encountered on 9/11 and 9/12.

Moussaoui remained the only al-Qaeda terrorist in custody for many months, but the Justice Department’s ban on interviewing him remained in place — at huge potential cost by forfeiting the possibility of acquiring information on other terrorist activities about which Moussaoui was very probably aware.

This is not merely theoretical. It appears that Moussaoui almost certainly was acquainted with Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who on Dec. 22, 2001, almost succeeded in blowing up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami with nearly 200 people aboard.  

So, in Rowley’s May 21, 2002, letter to FBI Director Mueller, she reminded him that if, as he claimed, priority was now being given to prevention over prosecution, the FBI needed to explore how to apply the Quarles “public safety” exception.

Rowley also reminded Mueller that Minneapolis had not only been prevented from further investigation of Moussaoui before 9/11 but also was prohibited from interviewing him after the attacks on that day.

Muzzling Moussaoui

Rowley tried again in early July 2002, after learning that Moussaoui was hinting he wanted to talk. She called then-Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff to note the opportunity missed by not interviewing Moussaoui — particularly in view of the suggestive information found on his laptop computer regarding crop dusting and wind currents.

Chertoff was not available; one of his assistants gave Rowley the brush-off.

Rowley’s last try came on Feb. 26, 2003, when she wrote the following as part of a longer letter to Director Mueller:

“If, as you have said, ‘prevention of another terrorist attack remains the FBI’s top priority,’ why is it that we have not attempted to interview Zacarias Moussaoui, the only suspect in U.S. custody charged with having a direct hand in the horror of 9/11?... Moussaoui almost certainly would know of other al-Qaeda contacts, possibly in the U.S., and would also be able to alert us to the motive behind his and Mohammed Atta’s interest in crop dusting.

“Similarly, there is the question as to why little or no apparent effort has been made to interview convicted terrorist Richard Reid, who obviously depended upon other al-Qaeda operatives in fashioning his shoe explosive. Nor have possible links between Moussaoui and Reid been fully investigated…

“In short … lack of follow-through with regard to Moussaoui and Reid gives a hollow ring to our ‘top priority.’”

It may be that Mueller, too, felt powerless at that point but, for whatever reason, he did not respond.

In sum, Rowley’s personal experience, and lots else, persuaded her that the please-understand-we-were-just-doing-all-we-could-to-prevent-a-second-wave-of-attacks excuse for torture is bogus — an outrageous lie.

The time is far past when the President and his torture apprentices should be accorded “the benefit of genuine doubt,” to quote again from Ashcroft’s testimony.

(Remember, too, that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush allowed prominent Saudis, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family, to be whisked out of the United States aboard private jets after only cursory interviews with the FBI.)

The Real Reasons Behind Torture?

What, then, accounts for the descent into Inquisition practices of waterboarding and other torture techniques? What accounts for the bizarre decision to round up a whole bunch of people with no provable attachment to terrorism, designate them terrorist suspects, herd them into prisons in New York, New Jersey, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and God knows where else, where they could be — and were — abused?

What accounts for the blithe departure from international and national law — not to mention time-honored civilized procedures for dealing with prisoners and detainees?

What accounts for the marginalization of those military, FBI and other professionals who warned that torture is not only a war crime but also that it doesn’t yield reliable information — that, rather, it is the very best recruiting tool for terrorists?

We suggest four reasons why I-don’t-care-what-the-international-lawyers-say George Bush and dark-side Dick Cheney opted for torture:

1 -- Deceit: Granted, torture does not yield truthful information. It can, though, be an excellent way to obtain the untruthful information you may wish to acquire. All you really need to know is what you want the victims to “confess” to and torture them, or render them abroad to “friendly” intelligence services toward the same end.

One case that speaks volumes is that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured and rendered to Egypt, where, under torture, he told his interrogators precisely what they wanted to hear.

According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, al-Libi had been identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements to prove that Iraq trained al-Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.

Without mentioning al-Libi by name, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration officials repeatedly cited information from his interrogation as credible evidence that Iraq was training al-Qaeda members in the use of explosives and illicit weapons.

So torture can indeed provide the information you may want to have to grease the skids for war. Al-Libi was practically the poster boy for the Cheney/Bush torture regime; that is, until he publicly recanted and explained that he only told his interrogators what he thought would stop the torture.

2 -- Sadism: Cheney’s open advocacy of waterboarding speaks volumes, but what about the President? Sad to say, as psychiatrist Justin Frank, author of Bush on the Couch, has noted:
“Bush’s certitude that he is right gives him carte blanche for destructive behavior. He has always had a sadistic streak: from blowing up frogs, to shooting his siblings with a BB gun, to branding fraternity pledges with white-hot coat hangers (explaining that the resulting wound was ‘only a cigarette burn’)…

”His comfort with cruelty is one reason he can be so jocular…Instead of seeing a President in anguish, we watch him publicly joking about the absence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, in the vain search for which so many young Americans died.”

3 -- Intimidation: Are you perhaps in some “shock and awe” at the prospect of the President designating you an “enemy combatant” and sending you off to the Navy brig in South Carolina for an indefinite stay? He now has court approval to do precisely that, and we are proceeding on faith that this joint article will not bring us “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Indefinite imprisonment is bad enough, but with the fringe benefit of the kind of torture suffered by Jose Padilla? Well, let us just say that the open advocacy of waterboarding and other “harsh” methods may, just may, be aimed at throwing the fear of Cheney into us, as a way of dissuading those of us who still believe in the Constitution from attempting to hold accountable those who break the law.

4 -- Because We Can: Lord Acton was, of course, right. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And closeness to it does the same.

Guided by the principle of an unaccountable unitary executive – not to mention the writings of torture apologist Alan Dershowitz, the acting performances of the torture evangelists on Scalia’s TV favorite, Fox’s “24,” and using the fear factor to a fare-thee-well – torture has become the bellwether of exclusive dominant power.

The very transparency of the excuses for torture serves to demonstrate that this kind of power is in place, and is not to be questioned.

Lie Number 2: Torture Saves Lives

It was hard to know whether to laugh or to cry. John Ashcroft insisting that according to “the reports I have heard, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, these techniques are very valuable.”

Ashcroft’s source? He indicated that it is none other than former CIA Director George Tenet, who wrecked the CIA by creating a Gestapo in the operations directorate and cultivating fawning boot-lickers among managers of analysis.

To say Tenet’s reputation for truthfulness leaves much to be desired would be the kind of self-evident revelation that CIA analysts were accustomed to assigning to their tongue-in-cheek “Great Moments in Intelligence” file.

It is, nonetheless, the White House line. Not only Ashcroft and Hayden, but also David Addington and John Yoo rang changes on the theme in their recent testimony before the aging Conyers.

Both Addington and Yoo argued that harsh interrogation methods had been crucial in preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. after 9/11.

On Thursday, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee picked up the theme, arguing that waterboarding and other harsh tactics yielded information that saved lives.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-California: “Had we not used those, would the probability of another attack not only be a probability but a certainty?”

Ashcroft:  “It could well have been.”

Have you, finally, no shame, Mr. Ashcroft? There is not a scintilla of evidence to support that claim. And, again, we are far past the point where the President and his torture apprentices merit “the benefit of genuine doubt.” Not the way they continue to play fast and loose with the truth.  

Quod Est Veritas?

Here it is the President himself, with his remarkable contempt for truth, who sets the tone.

Dr. Frank points out that contempt itself is a defense, a form of self-protection of Bush’s belief system, in which he clings to his beliefs as if they were well researched facts: “Bush’s pathology is a patchwork of false beliefs and incomplete information woven into what he asserts is the whole truth.”

And Cheney, Fox News, and the rest of the fawning corporate media (FCM) follow suit. What is truth? Go ask Pontius Bush.

Trouble is, the truth usually gets out, and the President is beginning to squirm. One highly disturbing fact, from the President’s point of view, emerged Thursday in the questioning of Ashcroft by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.

Nadler noted that “high-value” detainee Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded after his arrest in March 2002, and Nadler asked Ashcroft whether that happened before the memos from John Yoo justifying such activity were drafted. Ashcroft said he didn’t know.

Nadler, at least, had done some homework. The videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogation were among those destroyed by the CIA, for obvious reasons. Nadler is really asking on whose authority Zubaydah was waterboarded, since Addington and Yoo had not yet completed their ex-post-facto legal acrobatics.

The congressman knows the answer. The reason that CIA interrogators felt comfortable waterboarding is quite simply that the President of the United States cleared the way for such techniques with his Action Memorandum of Feb. 7, 2002.

When FBI agents were taken off the job of interrogating Zubaydah and became aware of the “techniques” being applied by their CIA colleagues, they questioned their use. They were told by CIA interrogators at the scene that the methods were approved “at the highest levels” and that no one would get in any trouble.

But what about the main contention of Lie Number Two? Has torture saved lives? Milt Bearden, a 30-year veteran of CIA’s operations directorate who rose to the most senior managerial ranks, doesn’t believe it for a minute:

“The administration’s claims of having ‘saved thousands of Americans’ can be dismissed out of hand because credible evidence has never been offered — not even an authoritative leak of any major terrorist operation interdicted based on information gathered from these interrogations in the past seven years. … It is irresponsible for any administration not to tell a credible story that would convince critics at home and abroad that this torture has served some useful purpose.”

Bearden said professionals he describes as the “old hands” in the CIA, the ones who know something of interrogation and intelligence, don’t believe administration claims. Worse still, they say, torture is counterproductive:

“This is not just because the old hands overwhelmingly believe that torture doesn’t work — it doesn’t — but also because they know that torture creates more terrorists and fosters more acts of terror than it could possibly neutralize.”

Bearden argues that if the claims of the Bush White House were true, it ought to stop hiding always behind the readily adduced need to protect sources and methods. He notes that in 1986 after the U. S. bombed Libya in retaliation for a Libyan operation that killed U.S. servicemen in Berlin, there was worldwide skepticism and consternation.

The Reagan administration decided it owed the world an explanation and decided it would be worth sacrificing a very sensitive method; namely, the ability to intercept Libyan encoded messages. Ironically, the Libyan message made public spoke of the successful operation, “without leaving a trace behind.”

Frittering Five Minutes With Feith

One might ask why Conyers has not thought of inviting experienced professionals like Milt Bearden to testify.

One might also ask why Conyers continues to let people like Addington, Yoo, Douglas Feith, and now Ashcroft make a mockery of the committee’s attempts to hold hearings on these historically important issues.

How painful it is to watch as the Bush administration’s witnesses quibble about semantics, make sweeping assertions of executive privilege, and run out the five-minute clock on each congressman’s questions.

Impeachment is what the Founders envisioned for the situation we face at present.

Quick, someone download for Congressman Conyers the President’s Action Memorandum of Feb. 7, 2002, which provided the loophole through which George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld drove the Mack truck of torture.

That memo is all you need, John. It is signed at the bottom with felt-pen strokes one and half inches high. If that’s not good enough for the Judiciary Committee chairman, then please let members and staff go home for an early vacation and spare all of us further humiliation.

Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. She retired at the end of 2004, and now writes and speaks on ethical decision-making and balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation. Ray McGovern, a former Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  Both serve on the Steering Committee of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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