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Bush OK'd Torture Meetings

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 14, 2008 1:36 PM

President Bush says he was aware that his top aides met in the White House basement to micromanage the application of waterboarding and other widely-condemned interrogation techniques. And he says it was no big deal.

"I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved," Bush told ABC News' Martha Raddatz on Friday. "I don't know what's new about that; I'm not so sure what's so startling about that."

It's true that it has been widely assumed and occasionally reported that the CIA's use of brutal interrogation techniques could be traced back to the White House on a general level. But it was most definitely new last week when ABC News reported that a group of Bush's top aides, including Vice President Cheney, took part in meetings where they explicitly discussed and approved -- literally blow by blow -- tactics such as waterboarding. And while Bush has previously defended these tactics -- vaguely, and insisting against all evidence that they did not amount to torture -- he had not, until now, acknowledged that he personally OK'd them beforehand.

If you consider what the government did to be torture, which is a crime according to U.S. and international law, Bush's statement shifts his role from being an accessory after the fact to being part of a conspiracy to commit.

What Bush Said

Here's the transcript of Bush's Friday morning interview with ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz.

Raddatz: "ABC News reported this week that your senior national security officials all got together and approved -- including Vice President Cheney -- all got together and approved enhanced interrogation methods, including waterboarding, for detainees."

Bush: "You mean back in 2003?"

Raddatz: "Are you aware of that? Are you aware of that?"

Bush: "Was I aware that we were going to use enhanced --"

Raddatz: "That they all met together?"

Bush: "Of course. They meet together all the time on --"

Raddatz: "And approved that?"

Bush: " -- a variety of issues."

Raddatz: "And approved that?"

Bush: "Yes."

Raddatz: "You have no problem with that?"

Bush: "In 2003?"

Raddatz: "Yes."

Bush: "No. I mean, as a matter of fact, I told the country we did that. And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it. And, no, I didn't have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew."

Raddatz: "OK."

Bush: "And guess what? I think it's very important for the American people to understand who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. He was the person who ordered the suicide attack -- I mean, the 9/11 attacks. And back then, there was all kinds of concerns about people saying, 'Well, the administration is not connecting the dots.' You might remember those -- that period."

Raddatz: "I remember."

Bush: "Well, we started to connect the dots, in order to protect the American people. And, yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved. I don't know what's new about that; I'm not so sure what's so startling about that."

The Coverage (Such As It Was)

The mainstream media by and large seem to agree with Bush that the ABC News Report wasn't so startling, and they have given Bush's remarks almost no coverage. There was no mention of Bush's admission in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times. There was nothing on the major wire services. And nothing on CNN, CBS or NBC.

By contrast, the American Civil Liberties Union and a smattering of newspaper editorial boards around the country are greatly disturbed and are calling for an urgent congressional investigation.

Dan Eggen wrote on page A3 of Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush said Friday that he was aware his top national security advisers had discussed the details of harsh interrogation tactics to be used on detainees.

"Bush also said in an interview with ABC News that he approved of the meetings, which were held as the CIA began to prepare for a secret interrogation program that included waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and other coercive techniques."

But Eggen indicates this is old news: "The Washington Post first reported in January 2005 that proposed CIA interrogation techniques were discussed at several White House meetings. . . .

"The Post reported that the attendees at one or more of these sessions included then-presidential counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, then-Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II, then-National Security Council legal adviser John B. Bellinger III, CIA counsel John A. Rizzo, and David S. Addington, then-counsel to Cheney."

Back on Jan. 5, 2005, in the course of a broader story about the attorney-general nomination of then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, R. Jeffrey Smith and Eggen did indeed describe Gonzales chairing White House meetings "which included detailed descriptions of interrogation techniques such as 'waterboarding'."

But the article did not place Bush's top echelon of aides at those meetings -- including Cheney, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and then-attorney general John Ashcroft -- as ABC News did. At the White House, a meeting of the "principals" carries much greater weight than meetings of lower-level aides.

And the earlier article certainly didn't contain any admission by Bush that he had given the principals the go-ahead.

The ACLU's View

From an ACLU press release on Saturday: "The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on Congress to demand an independent prosecutor to investigate possible violations by the Bush administration of laws including the War Crimes Act, the federal Anti-Torture Act, and federal assault laws.

"'No one in the executive branch of government can be trusted to fairly investigate or prosecute any crimes since the head of every relevant department, along with the president and vice president, either knew or participated in the planning and approval of illegal acts,' said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. 'Congress cannot look the other way; it must demand an independent investigation and independent prosecutor.'

"Fredrickson added, 'Congress is duty-bound by the Constitution not only to hold the president, vice president, and all civil officers to account, but it must also send a message to future presidents that it will use its constitutional powers to prevent illegal, and immoral conduct.'

Opinion Watch

The Kansas City Star editorial board writes: "It's shameful that the United States has become, under the Bush administration, a country that tortures prisoners. This is a dark stain on our country's honor and ideals.

"And it was disturbing, although not surprising, to learn this week that top White House officials, from Vice President Dick Cheney on down, were deeply involved in shaping and approving a torture policy -- including giving assent to specific harsh techniques such as waterboarding, according to Associated Press. . . .

"ABC News, which broke the story Wednesday, reported that some of the principals understood the moral swamp into which they were wading.

"'Why are we talking about this in the White House?' Ashcroft is quoted as saying at one meeting. 'History will not judge this kindly.'

"Nor will history judge the American people kindly if we look the other way."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes: "We agree with the American Civil Liberties Union calling for a congressional investigation into the matter. The fact that we torture suspects is unacceptable. That the White House reviewed and approved the techniques is beyond the pale."

The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer editorial board writes: "That the top officials in the White House were sitting around debating how many times someone should be waterboarded is disgusting, but not surprising. They have held themselves about all laws and legal standards. They have repeatedly claimed that any action performed during the course of our so-called war on terror -- no matter how illegal or barbaric -- is legally and morally justifiable.

"But even as they claim immunity from the legal and moral standards of the civilized world, the reality is that no one in the Bush administration stands above the law. Sooner or later, they must be held accountable.

"The ACLU is calling for a congressional investigation. We feel it can't be done soon enough. The damage this administration has done to human rights and the rule of law is so immense that this nation will be paying a steep price for it at home and abroad for decades to come."

The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News editorial board writes: "Long after the Bush administration is history, our nation will continue to be tarnished by its record of disregard for the rule of law and human rights.

"If there is a redeeming factor, it is the exposure of these illegalities and the determined effort to prevent a recurrence.

"To that end, the American Civil Liberties Union has called on Congress to investigate.

"Given the record of the Bush administration, including the political manipulation of the Justice Department under disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the request is entirely reasonable. We urge our elected officials to embrace it - and to restore our country's dedication to moral leadership."

Judiciary Committee Invitations

Daniel W. Reilly writes for Politico: "House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) Friday invited several former Bush administration officials to testify at an upcoming committee hearing on the legality of several torture techniques.

"Conyers invited a slew of high profile names, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former CIA Director George Tenet, former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Chief of Staff to the Vice President David Addington, and former Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin to testify at the hearing which will take place on May 6.

"Conyers also invited John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who authored a controversial March 2003 memorandum establishing the legal guidelines for the interrogation of detainees.

"'New and troubling allegations suggest that the decisions on torture came from the highest levels of government,' said Conyers in a statement. 'These reports, if true, represent a stain on our democracy. The American people deserve to hear directly from those involved.'"

These are invitations, not subpoenas. So it's hard to imagine anyone actually accepting them.

The Torture President

Anthony Lewis writes in the New York Review of Books (subscription required): "In these last weeks of turbulent events, the single most significant has not been the financial crisis, not the fall of a governor, not the passing of the fifth year of the war without end in Iraq. It has been an American president's formal blessing of the use of torture.

"That was what President Bush did in early March when he vetoed legislation prohibiting the use of brutal methods of interrogation by American intelligence agents. His action was quickly overtaken by other news. But in its redefinition of American values--of the American character--it had profound implications.

"I grew up believing that Americans did not torture prisoners, as Hitler's and Stalin's agents did. There were rogue episodes of American brutality, but to make torture a national policy? Unthinkable.

"No one should be in any doubt that torture was what President Bush had in mind. No one should be fooled by Orwellian talk of 'enhanced interrogation techniques.' . . .

"George W. Bush can seek his God's mercy for trying to legitimize torture by Americans. But here on earth he cannot escape judgment. For me he will always be the Torture President."

Intentionally Deceptive

During 2006, Bush's credibility came under yet further stress, as his constant assertions of progress in Iraq were flatly contradicted by the facts on the ground. See, for instance, my March 21, 2006, column, Incredibly Optimistic, and my Sept. 21, 2006, column, Bush vs. Reality.

When Raddatz brought up the events of 2006 in her interview Friday, Bush had a choice of either appearing clueless or intentionally deceptive. He chose the latter.

As Reuters reported, "President George W. Bush said on Friday he was worried in 2006 that the United States would fail in Iraq but stated publicly at the time that it was winning because he needed to maintain morale."

Raddatz: "All during that period -- April, May, June, July -- when things were really going downhill, people were talking about there being civil war."

Bush: "Yes."

Raddatz: "You were saying, 'We're winning. We have a plan for victory. We are winning,' up through October."

Bush: "Well, there was -- I also recognized -- I think if you'd go through the -- kind of fully analyze my statements, I was also saying, 'The fighting is very tough, it's -- you know, the extremism is unacceptable. The murder is unacceptable.'

"And you know, it's very important to be realistic."

Raddatz: "But the overall thing -- when you say, 'We're winning,' you know what the American people hear. You know how that will play."

Bush: "Well, yes. I think we -- and I wanted -- that's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as -- look, you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either, 'It's not worth it,' or, 'You're losing.' I mean, what does that do for morale?

"I'm the commander in chief of the military as well, obviously, as, you know, somebody who speaks to the country. And if you look at my remarks, they were balanced. They weren't Pollyannaish."

Raddatz: "But you weren't talking about a new strategy. I mean, I remember going to some strategy tactic things with you. You weren't talking about a new strategy publicly.

"It's one thing for the troops and boosting morale. I totally understand that. But do you think you lost credibility with the American people? Do you think that's one -- "

Bush: "Yes."

Raddatz: "-- of the reasons you couldn't sell this?"

Bush: "I think the quickest way to lose credibility with the American people is for them to think the president makes decisions based upon the latest public opinion poll or what's good for a political party."

Why believe what he says now? That's a good question Raddatz failed to follow up with.

Walking Back 'All the Time He Needs'

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Friday held out the possibility of further troop withdrawals from Iraq this year, scaling back a comment he made a day earlier, when he said the top American military commander in Iraq could have 'all the time he needs' before reducing American forces there further.

"In an interview with ABC News, Mr. Bush said he did not know how many troops would be in Iraq at the end of his administration. He also sought to clarify his remark about Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has said he wants time to reassess the situation in Iraq and has recommended that Mr. Bush suspend withdrawals for at least 45 days after the departure, expected in July, of the last of the additional units ordered into Iraq for last year's troop buildup.

"Mr. Bush's remark that the general could have as much time as he needed has been widely interpreted as a signal that the White House expects no further cuts after July. But in the interview, the president suggested that he thought his words were being misinterpreted. . . .

"The interview, taped at Mr. Bush's ranch here, appeared to be an attempt by the White House to have the final word after a week of intense national debate over the future of the war that began with the Capitol Hill testimony of General Petraeus and the top American diplomat in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker."

Fact Check, Part One

Raddatz: "Vice President Cheney said to me a few weeks ago that this administration doesn't go by fluctuations in the polls. The fact is those polls have not fluctuated over the years. They have been solidly saying that the war was a mistake."

Bush: "Yes, well, you know, look, obviously I care about what the American people think. They're the people that are paying for the effort."

One can dispute whether Bush cares about what Americans think -- but it's simply not true that the public is paying for the effort-- at least not yet. The entire war has been financed through borrowing.

Fact Check, Part Two

Bush also got the history of the civil strife in Iraq all wrong. Here he is on the events of 2006: "I remember thinking that, after the Samarra bombing, the Iraqi society took a look and decided, 'Well, we don't want to have serious civil strife.' And then, all of a sudden, civil strife started, and it kind of slowly began to build up. Throughout the summer, there was unspeakable violence.

"And I had a choice, obviously, as to whether or not to kind of pull back and hope for the best or move in and try to change the conditions. And, you know, I made the choice to move in and change conditions and started the surge."

But as Mark Seibel wrote for Knight-Ridder in January 2007: "No one disagrees that the February bombing of the Golden Dome shrine was a pivotal moment. . . . [But] U.S. diplomats, reporters and military and intelligence officers began reporting that Shiite death squads were targeting Sunni clerics and former officials of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime at least 15 months before the Samarra bombing."

So the unspeakable violence in fact went unabated for as long as two years before Bush decided to change course.

Fact Check, Part Three

Raddatz: "Who would you credit with the surge?"

Bush: "Well, if it's a failure, people will credit me. If it's a success, people will credit all kinds of people, I guess. I don't know. I mean, I think it was a good team effort.

"It was certainly an effort -- a recommendation of Secretary Gates. It was a recommendation of the Joint Chiefs. Pete Pace was the chairman at the time. It was definitely a recommendation of some inside the administration."

But as Robin Wright and Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post in December 2006, Bush advisers were at that time "split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate."

And as I wrote in my July 16, 2007 column, when virtually all of Bush's military line of command opposed his surge proposal, he responded not by listening, but by removing the top two commanders responsible for Iraq and replacing them with more amenable leaders, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Iraq Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush said last week that he told his Iraq war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, that 'he'll have all the time he needs.' We know what that means. It means that the general, like the Iraqi government, should feel no pressure to figure a way out of this disastrous war. . . .

"It means, as we've always suspected, that Mr. Bush's only real strategy for Iraq has been to hand the mess off to his successor. Mr. Bush gave himself all the time he needs to walk away from one of the biggest strategic failures in American history."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column about why the general public isn't interested in the war: "This is how the war planners wanted it. . . . No new taxes, no draft, no photos of coffins, no inconveniences that might compel voters to ask tough questions. This strategy would have worked if the war had been the promised cakewalk. But now it has backfired. A home front that has not been asked to invest directly in a war, that has subcontracted it to a relatively small group of volunteers, can hardly be expected to feel it has a stake in the outcome five stalemated years on.

"The original stakes (saving the world from mushroom clouds and an alleged ally of Osama bin Laden) evaporated so far back they seem to belong to another war entirely. What are the stakes we are asked to believe in now?"

HUD Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "As [Housing Secretary Alphonso] Jackson leaves office this week, much of the attention on his tenure has been focused on investigations into whether his agency directed housing contracts to his friends and political allies. But critics say an equally significant legacy of his four years as the nation's top housing officer was gross inattention to the looming housing crisis. . . .

"Jackson, who declined to be interviewed, will be remembered as a Cabinet secretary so committed to carrying out President Bush's goal of increasing homeownership that he encouraged policies that threatened to exacerbate the mortgage crisis, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former HUD officials and housing experts, and a review of numerous HUD documents and audits."

Steve Benen blogs: "Hmm, why does this sound so familiar? Bush puts an unqualified buddy in charge of a major federal agency, the Bush buddy ignores the concerns of qualified aides and experts, the buddy then sees a crisis emerge and chooses to intentionally not act, and when pressed for an explanation, the White House says Bush's buddy is doing a heckuva job."

The Papal Visit

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The leader of the world's Roman Catholics has been to the White House only once in history. That changes this week, and President Bush is pulling out all the stops: driving out to a suburban military base to meet Pope Benedict XVI's plane, bringing a giant audience to the South Lawn and hosting a fancy East Room dinner. . . .

"Bush has never before given a visiting leader the honor of picking him up at the airport. In fact, no president has done so at Andrews Air Force Base, the typical landing spot for modern leaders.

"A crowd of up to 12,000 is due at the White House on Wednesday morning for the pope's official, pomp-filled arrival ceremony. . . . Both men will make remarks before their Oval Office meeting and a send-off for his popemobile down Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The White House crowd will be the largest of Bush's presidency."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about a unique feature about the big papal dinner on Wednesday night. "[O]ne thing will be missing: the pope."

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "Pope Benedict and President George W. Bush disagree on the Iraq war and other foreign policy issues, but their White House meeting this week may focus more on areas of agreement like abortion."

Daniel Burke writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that "if Bill Clinton can be called America's first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation's first Catholic president.

"This isn't as strange a notion as it sounds. Yes, there was John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy sought to divorce his religion from his office, Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them."

Tax Returns

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush and his wife paid $221,635 in federal taxes on an adjusted gross income of $923,807 for the year 2007. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, had an adjusted gross income of $3.04 million in 2007.

"The Cheneys owed $602,651 in federal taxes on that income. They have paid $466,165 through withholdings and estimated tax payments, and will pay the remaining $136,486 upon filing their tax return. . . .

"The Bushes contributed $165,660 to churches and charitable organizations, including the volunteer fire department in Crawford, Texas, where they own a ranch. The Cheneys donated $166,547 to charity in 2007, the White House said."

Siegelman Watch

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "In the two weeks since his release from prison pending an appeal, [former Alabama governor Don Siegelman (D)] has sharply increased the volume of his assertions that he was railroaded. He says that Karl Rove, who was a White House adviser, targeted him for prosecution to ensure he did not win reelection to the governor's office and displace a Republican there. . . .

"He asserts that Rove, two Republican U.S. attorneys, the son of his successor as governor, career prosecutors and former leaders of the Justice Department's public integrity unit conspired to manufacture a case and thwart Siegelman's ambitions to return to the governor's mansion.

"Rove denies the assertions and derides the evidence offered by his accusers as vague and scanty. . . .

"Siegelman acknowledges that he has no specific evidence tying his fate to White House political interference. 'We don't have the knife with Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it, but we've got the glove, and the glove fits,' Siegelman said in a telephone interview."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on the exit strategy; Adam Zyglis on Iraq forever; Jeff Danziger on the light at the end of the tunnel; Dwane Powell on the Bush legacy; Ann Telnaes on the torture meetings.

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