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A Legacy of Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 10, 2008 1:36 PM

The headline of the top story in Sunday's New York Times story was promising: "Bush's Veto of Bill on C.I.A. Tactics Affirms His Legacy."

But in the lead paragraph, Steven Lee Myers pulled his punches: "President Bush on Saturday further cemented his legacy of fighting for strong executive powers, using his veto to shut down a Congressional effort to limit the Central Intelligence Agency's latitude to subject terrorism suspects to harsh interrogation techniques."

I'll be a little more blunt: The legacy that Bush affirmed with Saturday's veto was one of torture.

By refusing to impose on the CIA the same anti-torture prohibitions mandated by the Army Field Manual-- prohibitions against such tactics as waterboarding, prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mock executions, the use of attack dogs, the application of electric shocks and the withholding of food, water and medical care -- Bush cast his lot with the world's torturers and against the global human rights movement that was until recently the centerpiece of American foreign policy.

And by making the claim that the country would have been attacked again after 9/11 were it not for the CIA's interrogation program -- a claim allowed to go unrefuted in most media coverage -- Bush has further damaged his credibility among those who are paying attention.

Bush's Torture Canards

Bush announced the veto in his Saturday radio address. "The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror -- the CIA program to detain and question key terrorist leaders and operatives," he said.

His supporting evidence? In an almost word-for-word repeat from his October 23 speech on the same issue, Bush said: "This program has produced critical intelligence that has helped us prevent a number of attacks. The program helped us stop a plot to strike a U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti, a planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi, a plot to hijack a passenger plane and fly it into Library Tower in Los Angeles, and a plot to crash passenger planes into Heathrow Airport or buildings in downtown London. And it has helped us understand al Qaida's structure and financing and communications and logistics. Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al Qaida and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland."

Here's the unusually blistering response from Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, via TPM Muckraker: "As Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have heard nothing to suggest that information obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented an imminent terrorist attack. And I have heard nothing that makes me think the information obtained from these techniques could not have been obtained through traditional interrogation methods used by military and law enforcement interrogators. On the other hand, I do know that coercive interrogations can lead detainees to provide false information in order to make the interrogation stop."

As for Bush's four allegedly thwarted plots, let's start with the only domestic one, the Library Tower plot. As I wrote in Friday's column, it's been widely debunked. There's no reason to believe it was much more than a fantasy. And as I reported in October on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor), the three alleged international plots are also quite possibly figments of tortured detainees' imaginations as well.

Why much of the media repeatedly quotes Bush's unsubstantiated assertions without offering readers any context is beyond me.

No More

The Washington Monthly is out with a special issue: "No More." The editors explain why they commissioned 37 short essays on the same theme: "In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly -- despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib -- we remain one...

"The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop."

Peter Bergen writes in one of the essays about detainees Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh: "What is perhaps most astonishing of all is that the mistreatment of KSM and bin al-Shibh was entirely unnecessary. Before they were captured, they had explained the details of the 9/11 attacks in an April 2002 interview with Yosri Fouda, an Al Jazeera correspondent. Fouda's interviews resolved key questions that investigators still had about the plot -- for instance, that United 93 was on its way to destroy the Capitol when it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, and that al-Qaeda had once contemplated crashing planes into American nuclear facilities. KSM and bin al-Shibh explained how they kept Osama bin Laden, then living in Afghanistan, informed about the timing of the attack, and they laid out the coded correspondence they had conducted with the lead 9/11 pilot, Mohammed Atta.

"The CIA provided summaries of the interrogations of KSM and bin al-Shibh to the 9/11 Commission. There is little or no difference between the account that KSM and bin al-Shibh freely volunteered to Fouda in the spring of 2002 and the version the commission published in its 2004 report. Nor was Fouda's reporting difficult to find: he hosted a one-hour documentary on Al Jazeera, wrote a long piece in London's Sunday Times, and coauthored a book, Masterminds of Terror, about KSM and bin al-Shibh. By the time CIA officials captured the pair, a full account of their operations was only a Google search away.

"Obviously, then, it was unnecessary to waterboard KSM to find out what he knew about the 9/11 plot. What, though, of the administration's assertion that coercive interrogation techniques have saved American lives? To assess that claim, we must examine the details of other terrorist plots that KSM gave up after his capture, presented in a document the government released in 2006: 'KSM launched several plots targeting the US Homeland, including a plot in late 2001 to have . . . suicide operatives hijack a plane over the Pacific and crash it into a skyscraper on the US West Coast; a plan in early 2002 to send al-Qa'ida operatives to conduct attacks in the U.S.; and a plot in early 2003 to employ a network of Pakistanis . . . to smuggle explosives into New York and to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and a bridge in New York.'

"It all sounds very frightening, except that there is no indication that these plots were ever more than talk. The one exception is the plan by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker who worked for KSM, who researched the feasibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge with a pair of gas cutters in 2002, an enterprise akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker. If that is all we could discover by waterboarding the most senior al-Qaeda member in our custody, it's thin stuff indeed. . . .

"Nothing better illustrates this point than KSM's claim that he killed the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. According to a Western official who was deeply involved in the Pearl investigation, there is simply no evidence that KSM killed him."

Jimmy Carter writes in an essay: "Until recent years the United States has been in the forefront of condemning torture and indefinite detention without trial as fundamental violations of human rights. . . .

"A burgeoning global human rights movement was, slowly but surely, taking root by the end of the twentieth century, as more and more nations sought to turn principles of human decency into the practice of greater justice for all. Tragically, the tolerance of torture by our own government is today threatening to undermine the cause of human rights and the work of those who defend these principles in the face of growing dangers."

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel writes: "We are in a war of ideas against a radical extremist ideology. Effective and aggressive intelligence operations are essential to our security. But in our effort to protect the nation, we must remember our greatest strength: the principles of human rights that we have upheld throughout our country's wars and conflicts. It is vital that the world can trust what we say and have confidence in what we do. There must be no doubt that this great nation does not torture."

Lawrence B. Wilkerson writes: "The worst horrors of our war have yet to be revealed--but they will be. Secret prisons, renditions, homicides, torture, and innocents swept up in a vast network of detention--all will be revealed. It is the nature of our openness that it be so. We must start now to recognize our crimes and our complicity. We are all guilty, and we must all take action in whatever way we can. Torture and abuse are not American. They are foreign to us and always should be. We need to exorcise them from our souls and make amends."

More tomorrow.

There Are Some Things They Won't Do

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield writes in a letter to the editor of the New York Times that, contrary to the implication in a recent editorial, the CIA doesn't actually engage in all the tactics that are prohibited by the Army Field Manual -- measures like forcing prisoners to perform sexual acts, applying electric shocks and conducting mock executions.

"The implication is that those measures would be used by the Central Intelligence Agency or other intelligence services if the intelligence authorization bill is vetoed by the president. They would not. The C.I.A. neither conducts nor condones torture," Mansfield writes.

The problem, he writes, is that the Army Field Manual "does not exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation measures available to the Republic to defend itself against hardened terrorists -- techniques not useful or suited to the Army's circumstances but fully consistent with the Geneva Conventions and with current United States law."

But wait: Is the CIA actually willing to state that it adheres to every one of the manual's prohibitions -- including the one against waterboarding? That would be a step forward -- and someone should ask Mansfield to make a definitive statement.

The Executive Power Argument

I didn't mean to suggest that Myers, in that New York Times story I mentioned at the top, wasn't on to something. He is.

"The veto deepens his battle with increasingly assertive Democrats in Congress over issues at the heart of his legacy. As his presidency winds down, he has made it clear he does not intend to bend in this or other confrontations on issues from the war in Iraq to contempt charges against his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and former counsel, Harriet E. Miers. . . .

"Mr. Bush's veto -- the ninth of his presidency, but the eighth in the past 10 months with Democrats in control of Congress -- underscored his determination to preserve many of the executive prerogatives his administration has claimed in the name of fighting terrorism, and to enshrine them into law.

"Mr. Bush is fighting with Congress over the expansion of powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and over the depth of the American security commitments to Iraq once the United Nations mandate for international forces there expires at the end of the year.

"The administration has also moved ahead with the first military tribunals of those detained at Guant¿namo Bay, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite calls to try them in civilian courts.

"All are issues that turn on presidential powers. And as he has through most of his presidency, he built his case on the threat of terrorism. 'The fact that we have not been attacked over the past six and a half years is not a matter of chance,' Mr. Bush said in his radio remarks, echoing comments he made Thursday at a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security."

More Opinion

Word maven William Safire writes in the New York Times Magazine: "If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for 'twist,' means anything (and it means 'the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce'), then waterboarding is a means of torture."

The editorial board of The Independent of London writes: "Anyone who imagined that, with the clock running down on his tenure in the White House and America's attention concentrated on the election of his successor, George Bush could do no more serious damage to America's reputation in the world must now surely be rueing their complacency. . . .

"The President shows no signs of understanding the damage done by giving free rein to interrogators. It is a sure-fire way to produce gross prisoner abuses of the sort we saw at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mr Bush may claim until he is blue in the face that 'we do not torture', but torture is exactly what his administration has facilitated with its disgracefully relaxed attitude to constraining interrogators."

Jack Balkin blogs that "it is worth recognizing Bush's veto-- and indeed, many other future actions and acts of intransigence-- as part of an endgame strategy. At this point in Bush's Presidency he deals from a position of weakness, not strength. His major goals are to prevent criminal prosecutions of himself (unlikely in any event) and his aides (more likely), to keep the public from finding out much of what he and his advisors actually did and ordered done during his presidency (his fight for immunity for telecom companies who engaged in illegal surveillance should be understood as part of this larger strategy), to entrench the U.S. presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, and do what he can to ensure that John McCain becomes President, or failing that, Hillary Clinton as a second best solution."

Domestic Spying Watch

Siobhan Gorman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Five years ago, Congress killed an experimental Pentagon antiterrorism program meant to vacuum up electronic data about people in the U.S. to search for suspicious patterns. Opponents called it too broad an intrusion on Americans' privacy, even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"But the data-sifting effort didn't disappear. The National Security Agency, once confined to foreign surveillance, has been building essentially the same system.

"The central role the NSA has come to occupy in domestic intelligence gathering has never been publicly disclosed. But an inquiry reveals that its efforts have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people's communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Congress now is hotly debating domestic spying powers under the main law governing U.S. surveillance aimed at foreign threats. . . .

"Largely missing from the public discussion is the role of the highly secretive NSA in analyzing that data, collected through little-known arrangements that can blur the lines between domestic and foreign intelligence gathering. . . .

"According to current and former intelligence officials, the spy agency now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records. . . .

"The NSA's enterprise involves a cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs, all of which sparked civil-liberties complaints when they came to light. They include a Federal Bureau of Investigation program to track telecommunications data once known as Carnivore, now called the Digital Collection System, and a U.S. arrangement with the world's main international banking clearinghouse to track money movements.

"The effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called 'black programs' whose existence is undisclosed, the current and former officials say. Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach. Among them, current and former intelligence officials say, is a longstanding Treasury Department program to collect individual financial data including wire transfers and credit-card transactions."

Economy Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that a "surprisingly bleak employment report sent tremors through Washington" on Friday.

"The nation shed 63,000 jobs in February, the worst job loss in five years, the Labor Department reported, and another sign that the economy may have slipped into a recession that could prove to be the defining challenge for President Bush and Congress through the rest of his administration. . . .

"Bush asked for patience to let an economic stimulus package he signed last month start to work. . . .

"'Losing a job is painful, and I know Americans are concerned about our economy,' Bush told reporters at the White House. 'So am I. It's clear our economy has slowed, but the good news is we anticipated this and took decisive action to bolster the economy.'"

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush put the best face on Friday's grim employment report, claiming a recently passed economic stimulus package should provide a 'booster shot' to an economy he acknowledged was in decline -- but on track, he said, to prosper in the future.

"Economists, for the most part, don't share his rosy outlook. . . .

"A White House ' fact sheet' boasts that the economy has added 'more than 8.1 million jobs since August 2003.' . . .

"[D]o you wonder why the administration picked August 2003 as a starting point?

"That's because it was a low point for job creation.

"When Bush took office in January 2001, there were 132.5 million non-farm workers. In August 2003, the number had fallen to 129.8 million. As of February, there are 138 million in the work force -- for a net increase since Bush took office of 5.5 million.

"That barely keeps pace with population growth, economists suggest.

"Many economists say the U.S. economy is already in recession -- even though it hasn't met the classic definition of two back-to-back quarters of declining gross domestic product -- and say the White House is trying to sugarcoat the statistics."

Intel Watch

Those who regard this White House with great skepticism have been looking forward to a Senate Intelligence Committee report on whether the White House intentionally deceived the public in the run-up to war.

The traditional media narrative still gives Bush the benefit of the doubt on this one -- despite the fact that the public long ago chose otherwise. Polls show that since at least mid-2005, a majority of Americans have believed that members of the Bush administration intentionally misled the public to make the case for war. In fact, it's up to 60 percent according to a September CBS/New York Times poll.

Similarly, a recent Center for Public Integrity report and database documented 935 false statements by Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001. (See my January 23 column.)

But now it looks like the Senate report will avoid any bold conclusions.

Greg Miller reports in the Los Angeles Times: "After an acrimonious investigation that spanned four years, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a detailed critique of the Bush administration's claims in the buildup to war with Iraq, congressional officials said.

"The long-delayed document catalogs dozens of prewar assertions by President Bush and other administration officials that proved to be wildly inaccurate about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of banned weapons and pursuit of nuclear arms.

"But officials say the report reaches a mixed verdict on the key question of whether the White House misused intelligence to make the case for war.

"The document criticizes White House officials for making assertions that failed to reflect disagreements or uncertainties in the underlying intelligence on Iraq, officials said. But the report acknowledges that many claims were consistent with intelligence assessments in circulation at the time.

"Because of the nuanced nature of the conclusions, one congressional official familiar with the document said: 'The left is not going to be happy. The right is not going to be happy. Nobody is going to be happy.' . . .

"The report focusing on the Bush administration's prewar statements is set to be delivered to members of the committee this week, officials said. But it could be weeks away from public release because members may push for changes, and much of the material cited in the report has yet to be approved for declassification by U.S. intelligence officials."

Cheney Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East, said the goal is to get Israelis and Palestinians to hold firm to the promises they've made toward peace.

"Bush said Monday in the Oval Office that Cheney would 'reassure people that the United States is committed to a vision of peace in the Middle East.' . . .

"Cheney departs Sunday for a trip to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Turkey. Oil is also on his agenda, as the White House -- coping with high energy prices that have socked American consumers -- continues to push for greater oil production in the Mideast."

Albatross Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "It took the Democrats all of about a minute and a half to turn President Bush's endorsement of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week into an attack ad. The Democratic National Committee posted a 49-second online video that shows Bush playfully tap-dancing for reporters as he waited for McCain to arrive at the White House, then flashes some pointed captions:

"'Why Is This Man So Happy?'

"'Because he found someone to promise a Third Bush Term.'"

Baker continues: "The White House, meanwhile, says there is controlling legal authority allowing Bush to host what certainly seemed like a campaign event on federal property."

And, following up on something I pointed out Friday, as of this writing, the lead headline on the Democratic National Committee Web site remains "Bush Endorses John McCain as His Successor." By contrast, there's still no mention of the Bush endorsement on the home pages of either the Republican National Committee or the John McCain campaign Web sites. In fact, the only place I see any notice of it on either site is on the campaign's " McCain Supporters" page, which lists Bush (and his father) under "Former U.S. Presidents."

Karl Rove Watch

O. Kay Henderson writes for Radio Iowa: "Karl Rove, the former political advisor to President George W. Bush, spoke to a sometimes adversarial crowd of about 1200 last night at the University of Iowa. Rove was often interrupted by the 200 vocal protesters who attended the event. 'You've got a chance to ask your questions later and make your stupid statements,' Rove told the protesters as the event's moderator struggled to maintain order. 'Let me make mine.'"

Kelsey Beltramea writes for the Daily Iowan: "[T]he 'architect' on stage remained seemingly unshaken. Armed with a sarcastic humor and several quotations from prominent Democrats to support his contentions, Rove took on the audience of roughly 1,100 - telling a woman who yelled that that UI wanted the $40,000 speaking fee they paid back, simply, 'You can't have it.'"

Gridiron Reports

And why should a veto of anti-torture legislation dampen a good time?

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Bush, in white tie and cowboy hat, stole the show at Saturday's Gridiron Club dinner with a good ol' boy version of 'Green Green Grass of Home.' . . .

"[T]he 'first and final' performance of Bush and the Busharoos brought down the house. After the second verse, 50 people in the audience flicked on lighters. So Peter Frampton! But wait -- no one smokes anymore! Turns out Karl Rove and other insiders surreptitiously passed them out during dinner. Bush was apparently so pleased that he closed the show by kissing Helen Thomas."

Some of the lyrics: "And there to meet me is my mama and my papa, down the lane I look and here comes Barney, heart of gold and breath like honey; it's good to touch the brown brown grass of home. . . .

"For there's Condi and Dick, my old compadre, talking to me about some oil rich Saudi, but soon I'll touch the brown brown grass of home.

"That old White House is behind me, I am once again carefree, don't have to worry 'bout a crisis in Pyongyang. Down the lane I look, Dick Cheney is strolling with documents he'd been withholding, it's good to touch the brown brown grass of home."

Tribune blogger Frank James has video of Bush -- though it doesn't start until right after Bush stopped singing.

Ed Pilkington recounts the hilarities for the Guardian, then concludes: "Which was all very funny, until you realise that he still has 10 months left in office and remains the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military on Earth."

Cartoon Watch

Clay Bennett, Walt Handelsman, Mike Keefe, Robert Ariail and J.D. Crowe on Bush's McCain endorsement.

Brian Duffy and John Sherffius on Bush and the price of oil; Jim Morin and Ed Stein on the economy; Steve Benson on Bush's peace agreement.

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