Rejecting the Torture Legacy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 12:00 PM

Of all the ways the Bush presidency represented a break with traditional American values, none is more shocking or grievous than the countenancing of torture. So it's no surprise that President-elect Barack Obama is under pressure to make the cleanest possible break from Bush's interrogation policies. And at the same time, debate is hot and heavy over how best to bring light and accountability to such a dark period in our history.

The latest push to renounce Bush's legacy is coming from a dozen retired generals and admirals who are meeting with Obama's transition team today.

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "They are going into the meeting armed with a list of 'things that need to be done and undone,' retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, chief of the U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

"'It is fairly extensive'"

Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "Barack Obama should act from the moment of his inauguration to restore a U.S. image battered by allegations of torturing terrorism suspects, said [the] group of retired military leaders. . . .

"'We need to remove the stain, and the stain is on us, as well as on our reputation overseas,' said retired Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, former Navy inspector general."

The group's list of anti-torture principles "include making the Army Field Manual the single standard for all U.S. interrogators. The manual requires humane treatment and forbids practices such as waterboarding. . . .

"Other immediate steps Obama could take are revoking presidential orders allowing the CIA to use harsh treatment, giving the International Red Cross access to all prisoners held by intelligence agencies and declaring a moratorium on taking prisoners to a third country for harsh interrogations.

"'If he'd just put a couple of sentences in his inaugural address, stating the new position, then everything would flow from that,' said retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, whose regiment in World War Two raised the American flag on Iwo Jima."

As Mikkelsen notes: "Bush has repeatedly denied condoning torture, but the denials have widely rung hollow among U.S. and international audiences."

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "One of the retired generals meeting with the Obama team on Wednesday, Paul D. Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces for the Army in 2003 and 2004, said in an interview Tuesday that it was crucial for leaders to send the right message on the treatment of prisoners.

"General Eaton pointed out that Vice President Dick Cheney once dismissed waterboarding, the near-drowning tactic considered by many legal authorities to be torture, as a 'dunk in the water' and said such statements influenced rank-and-file soldiers to believe that brutality was not really prohibited.

"'This administration has set a tone problem for the military,' General Eaton said. 'We've had eight years of undermining good order and discipline.'"

Obama is widely expected to accede to most of these requests; he's already on record for some of them. But it's much less clear how and if he intends to investigate the administration's torture policies and hold accountable those responsible for it.

Charles Homans wrote last week in the Washington Monthly that "when Bush hands over the keys to the White House in January, he will leave behind more unanswered questions of sweeping national importance than any modern president."

Seeing Vice President Cheney behind most of the darkest secrets, Homans wrote: "If there is one overarching priority between now and January 20, it is to surround Cheney's office with every possible legal barrier to removing so much as a Post-it Note from the premises."

And Homans concluded that Congress should lead the investigative charge by appointing "a panel that does for the wartime excesses of the Bush administration what the 9/11 Commission did for the September 11 attacks. In other words, a 9/12 Commission."

The Homans essay launched a spirited debate at the TPM Cafe Web site. Blogger Daniel Larison wrote: "If the purpose is to get at the truth of the matter to understand how these decisions were made and how they were executed, criminal investigations where the evidence that we have merits it seem to me to be the best option."

Former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards wrote that an investigation "should -- no, must -- be carried out not by an independent commission but by the Congress, just as Harry Truman, a Democratic Senator, investigated the War Department in a Democratic Administration and just as a Congress controlled by Democrats investigated the Watergate break-in during a Republican Administration."

Human rights lawyer and blogger Scott Horton responded: "I am not persuaded that the Congressional committees have the stamina, the concentration and the expertise to do what is necessary. . . . Questioning needs to be done by a professional interrogator who is focused on building a complete record, not playing to the cameras and the audience in the constituency back home."

Former Bush Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that any kind of probe is a bad idea. "Second-guessing lawyers' wartime decisions under threat of criminal and ethical sanctions may sound like a good idea to those who believe those lawyers went too far in the fearful days after Sept. 11, 2001. But the greater danger now is that lawyers will become excessively cautious in giving advice and will substitute predictions of political palatability for careful legal judgment. . . .

"The people in government who made mistakes or who acted in ways that seemed reasonable at the time but now seem inappropriate have been held publicly accountable by severe criticism, suffering enormous reputational and, in some instances, financial losses. Little will be achieved by further retribution."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald responded sarcastically: "As Goldsmith pleads, these are people who have been so severely punished already. They are banished to toil in shameful, humiliating labor conditions -- as, say, tenured Professor at Berkeley Law School or Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States, with unimaginably grim futures involving millions of dollars in fees for giving speeches and writing memoirs and living in retirement off Halliburton stock. What kind of monster would want to heap still more punishment on these noble, suffering souls, just because they committed some so-called 'war crimes' and other felonies? . . .

"Goldsmith's principal point is that we will all suffer if further investigations are pursued against these high government officials, because government lawyers will 'become excessively cautious in giving advice and will substitute predictions of political palatability for careful legal judgment.' Actually, the reason we have criminal laws and punishment for violations is precisely because we want to deter lawbreaking and incentivize people to obey, not flout, the law."

Evan Perez wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week: "The White House isn't inclined to grant sweeping pardons for former administration officials involved in harsh interrogations and detentions of terror suspects, according to people familiar with the situation.

"Some Republicans have been pushing for President George W. Bush to grant pre-emptive clemency to officials who fear being investigated by Democratic critics. White House officials have countered that such pardons are unnecessary, these people say. The officials point to Justice Department legal opinions that supported the administration's methods of detaining and interrogating terror suspects."

Jonathan Turley, appearing on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show responded: "I don't believe that anyone seriously believes in the administration that what they did was legal. This is not a close legal question. Waterboarding is torture. It has been defined as a war crime by U.S. courts and foreign courts. There's no ambiguity in it. That's exactly why they have repeatedly tried to stop any court from reviewing any of this. . . .

"The question is the intestinal fortitude of the Democrats to stand with the rule of law."

An Interrogator's View

A former Air Force interrogator in Iraq used a pseudonym, Matthew Alexander, to write in a Washington Post opinion piece on Sunday that torture "betrays our traditions" and "just doesn't work. . . .

"Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

"I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans. . . .

"Americans, including officers like myself, must fight to protect our values not only from al-Qaeda but also from those within our own country who would erode them."

Transition Watch

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "President-elect Barack Obama gets soaring marks for his handling of the transition and his choices for the Cabinet, a USA Today/Gallup Poll finds, even at a time the public is downbeat over the economy.

"More than three of four Americans, including a majority of Republicans, approve of the job Obama has done so far -- broad-based support he'll need as he faces tough decisions ahead. . . .

"In the poll, Americans by more than 3-1 say they trust Obama more than Bush to handle the economy. By 58%-33%, they support Obama's plan for a huge spending package to spur economic growth. . . .

"There's little concern Obama is relying too much on veterans of President Clinton's administration. By nearly 4-1, those polled predict the officials will make the incoming team more effective, not less so."

Shailagh Murray and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post that agency review teams for Obama, swarming into dozens of government offices, are "creating anxiety among some Bush administration officials" as they "rigorously examine programs and policies.

"Lisa Brown, who served as counsel to Vice President Al Gore and is helping manage the reviews, said typical questions include: 'Which is the division that has really run amok? Or that has run out of money? If someone is confirmed, what's going to be on their desk from Day One? What are the main things that need to happen, vis-a-vis Obama's priorities?'"

The Video Presidency

And how has the White House changed in the past eight years?

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that former Clinton staffers who are now part of the Obama transition team are amazed "chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and national-security apparatus. . . .

"Eight years ago, there were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen, each with staff. In the downstairs suites of the West Wing and across the street in the Old Executive Office Building, the returnees tripped into the Homeland Security Council, created to keep order in the new, vast, often dysfunctional Homeland Security Department."

They're also struck by the transformative effect of video conferencing. "[T]hey have been surprised to see the degree of tactical detail about two wars and a handful of insurgencies -- from the tribal areas of Pakistan to Sudan and the Congo -- that surrounds [Bush]. Partly this is because the high-tech makeover of the Situation Room, completed about two years ago, makes instantaneous conversation with field commanders easier than ever.

"Both the transition officials and some White House insiders say it may make this communication too easy, sucking the commander-in-chief into a situation in which real-time, straight-from-the-battlefield discussions of tactics masquerade as a conversation about strategy."

And there are at least two more problems with that. Sanger writes that "several veterans of the White House have noted in conversations over the past two years that the secure video does not lend itself to open, vigorous debate. Instead, it can squelch it. The picture is being piped into too many places; field commanders don't want to speak their mind to the president if their immediate superiors at the Pentagon or Central Command are tuned in, too. There may be recordings for posterity, or presidential libraries."

And then there's the observation by a "recently departed National Security Council official . . . that the system is largely in the hands of war-fighters; only on a rare day, and only toward the end of his presidency, did members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other aid workers involved in nation-building pop up on Mr. Bush's screen."

Terror Czar?

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "President-elect Barack Obama plans to appoint a new White House official to coordinate efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear or biological weapons, advisers say, giving the highest priority to thwarting a catastrophic attack that a bipartisan panel warns could come in the next five years.

"Naming a top deputy whose sole mission is to oversee the government's wide-ranging programs to stop such an attack would mark a significant break with the Bush administration, which in resisting such a post has maintained that US efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and safeguard deadly pathogens are adequate.

"A law requiring the position, passed by Congress more than a year ago and signed into law by President Bush, has been ignored for more than 15 months, in part because Bush opposes giving the Senate the power to confirm the official.

"But Obama, whose first foreign trip as a US senator was to assess initiatives to lock down nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, believes the programs lack coordination, are underfunded, and need a top official supervising them, according to three advisers with knowledge of the transition team's deliberations."

Justice Watch

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "A prosecutor who is investigating the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys has been meeting with defense lawyers, dispatching subpoenas and seeking information about the events, according to legal sources familiar with the case.

"Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey appointed prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy two months ago, after the department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility reported that they had hit a roadblock in their lengthy probe into whether political interference prompted the dismissals. Internal investigators said they had been stymied by the refusal of key witnesses, including former presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, to cooperate. . . .

"The requests for documents could provoke another legal skirmish in a fight over the scope of executive power wielded by the Bush administration. In past cases, White House lawyers have asserted executive privilege in refusing to make available witnesses and information to Congress and interest groups."

So does this mean Dannehy has issued a subpoena for White House documents? Wouldn't that be something. As I noted in my September 29 column, one key bit of evidence would be the report of an internal White House investigation by associate White House counsel Michael Scudder, who interviewed Justice and White House personnel in early 2007. That report was provided to the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and to then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales early last year -- but was nevertheless denied to the DOJ's internal investigators.

Accountability Watch (Treasury Edition)

Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has failed to adequately oversee its $700 billion bailout program and must move rapidly to guarantee that banks are complying with the plan's limits on conflicts of interest and lavish executive compensation, congressional investigators said yesterday."

Legacy Tour Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President George W. Bush, trying to emphasize the softer side of his policy record before leaving office, on Tuesday thanked volunteers who have served as mentors to children of prisoners.

"'These youngsters have ambitions and goals,' Bush said after a private discussion with a few children and their mentors in North Carolina. . . .

"Making a difference, Bush said, 'doesn't take much. All it takes is time. It takes a little bit of extra love.'

"The White House used the stop to emphasize Bush's efforts to support community groups as partners in solving problems. . . .

"Back in Washington, the president spent the evening at a reception honoring workers and hundreds of volunteers from the Office of Presidential Advance. The 'advance' workers handle the logistics for presidential events around the country and abroad, a task that involves preparation long before the president shows up and then coordination with media, security and other agencies on site to make sure Bush's appearances go smoothly."

Karl Rove Watch

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times about Karl Rove's appearance at a debate in New York last night, arguing against the proposition "that his former boss is not the worst president of the past 50 years. . . .

"At the first mention of Mr. Rove's name, a member of the audience hissed at him, and more hisses followed as the bespectacled political strategist took the podium.

"But the setting was not entirely hostile to Mr. Rove and his fellow conservative, New York Times and Weekly Standard columnist William Kristol.

"New York financier Robert Rosenkranz, whose conservative-leaning foundation organized the event, opened the debate with a statement that President Carter was in fact 'a truly awful president' and credited Mr. Bush with preventing a second terrorist attack on U.S. soil after the Sept. 11 attacks."

Nevertheless, in a vote taken at the beginning of the debate, 65 percent of the audience agreed that Bush was the worst president of the past 50 years. At the end, that number had gone up to 68 percent.

Sam Stein writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "In what was a remarkable admission that contradicted - to a large extent - the past statements from his onetime boss, former Bush strategist Karl Rove said on Tuesday evening that had the President known Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, the United States would not have gone to war.

"'In the aftermath of 9/11 the concern was about a tyrant accused of enormous human rights abuses,' but who also possessed weapons of mass destruction, said Rove. 'Absent that, I suspect that the administration's course of action would have been to work to find more creative ways to constrain him like in the 90s.'"

This is, indeed, emphatically not the position of his former boss. Although Bush this week said he regretted the intelligence failure in Iraq (see yesterday's column), he has repeatedly said he would have invaded Iraq even had he known the country possessed no weapons of mass destruction. And just last week he told troops at Fort Campbell, Kentucky: "Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision then -- and it is the right decision today."

Inspectors, Redux

Several readers e-mailed me yesterday to complain that I had allowed a key Bush assertion get by without rebuttal. In justifying the invasion of Iraq, Bush told ABC's Charlie Gibson that "Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld."

And indeed, this is a complete falsehood.

As Joe Conason wrote for Salon back in March 2006: "President Bush persists in blatantly falsifying the war's origins -- perhaps because, even now, he still gets away with it."

The first time Bush tried to rewrite history this way came in a July 2003 photo op. The following day, (in a story no longer online) Dana Priest and Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post: "The president's assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective."

But ever since then, as Conason noted, the "lazy and intimidated press corps" has let Bush get away with a bald-faced lie.

For the record: U.N. weapons inspectors worked in Iraq from November 27, 2002 until being pulled out for their own safety on March 18, 2003, the day before the invasion began. During that time, they conducted hundreds of inspections and found no signs that Iraq possessed chemical or biological weapons or had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

In fact, as Dafna Linzer wrote in The Washington Post in April 2005: "By the time President Bush ordered U.S. troops to disarm Saddam Hussein of the deadly weapons he was allegedly trying to build, every piece of fresh evidence had been tested -- and disproved -- by U.N. inspectors, according to a report commissioned by the president. . . .

"The work of the inspectors -- who had extraordinary access during their three months in Iraq between November 2002 and March 2003 -- was routinely dismissed by the Bush administration and the intelligence community in the run-up to the war."

Bush as Hoover

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "As he prepares to move back to Texas, our 43rd president is the beneficiary of Bush fatigue. The nation has long since repudiated him. Americans are looking ahead to the promise of Barack Obama.

"And it's lucky for George W. Bush that they are, because his handling of our plunging economy is Hooverian in both its substance and inadequacy. . . .

"So where's the outrage? Why aren't demonstrators besieging the White House? Where are the 'Welcome to Bushville' signs in those neighborhoods where abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones?

"The answer, I suspect, is that you can only irreversibly give up on a president once."

Phasers on Stun

Debra J. Saunders writes in her San Francisco Chronicle opinion column: "I feel as if the country is passing the torch from the brash, rule-breaking Capt. James T. Kirk, whose Starship Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before in the original sci-fi series, to the more cerebral governance of Capt. Jean Luc Picard."

Ornament Watch

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger write in The Washington Post: "That controversial ornament calling for President Bush's impeachment? Won't hang in the White House after all.

"'Oh, dear,' said Seattle-based artist Deborah Lawrence, who created the red and white ornament that salutes Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and his support for a resolution to impeach the president. 'This doesn't really surprise me. But it's disappointing that I won't get to see it on the tree.' . . .

"Sally McDonough, a spokeswoman for the first lady, confirmed the ornament would not be displayed. 'It's inappropriate and it's not being hung,' she said. She said that when asked about the issue yesterday, the White House tree decorations were not complete. 'We reviewed the ornament along with all the [other] ornaments, and Mrs. Bush deemed it inappropriate for the holiday tree.'"

Jeremy Olshan writes for Salon: "Lawrence was actually flummoxed when she first got the commission this summer. 'I had an immediate, convulsive reaction to the request,' she says. 'Why would I want to put a smiley face of tacit approval on an administration famous for lies, greed, warmongering and religious fundamentalism?'"

Live Online

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Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Well, President Bush opening up a little bit. He gave an interview to ABC News. Bush said he wished the intelligence on Iraq had been different. Hey, how many wish the intelligence in the White House had been different?"

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's regrets, Ed Stein on Bush's apology, David Horsey on tying up loose ends, Clay Bennett on helping Bush pack, Bruce Plante on a variety of viewpoints, and Tom Tomorrow on what might have been.

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