The Reality of Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 12:57 PM

Editor's Note: Dan Froomkin will be out Thursday, Jan. 15. White House Watch will return on Friday.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney would like you to believe that only a few left-wingers think the Bush administration's treatment of detainees amounted to torture.

But the real fringe group is the motley assortment of enablers, enforcers and apologists who still maintain that it didn't.

The reality-based community gains another prominent member this morning, as Bob Woodward writes in The Washington Post: "The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a 'life-threatening condition.'

"'We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,' said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. 'His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case' for prosecution.

"Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.

"Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani's health led to her conclusion. 'The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge' to call it torture, she said. . . .

"The harsh techniques used against Qahtani, she said, were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. 'A lot of this happened on his watch,' she said. Last month, a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded that 'Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.' The committee found the interrogation techniques harsh and abusive but stopped short of calling them torture."

What's particularly significant about Qahtani's treatment being recognized as torture is that senior White House officials -- most notably vice presidential aide David Addington -- had a direct role in devising it.

In Vanity Fair in May, Phillipe Sands wrote: "On September 25, [2002] as the process of elaborating new interrogation techniques reached a critical point, a delegation of the administration's most senior lawyers arrived at Guantanamo. The group included the president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzales . . . ; Vice President Cheney's lawyer, David Addington . . . ; the C.I.A.'s John Rizzo . . . ; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld's counsel. They were all well aware of al-Qahtani. 'They wanted to know what we were doing to get to this guy,' [the former military commander at Guantanamo, Major General Michael E. Dunlavey] told me, 'and Addington was interested in how we were managing it.' I asked what they had to say. 'They brought ideas with them which had been given from sources in D.C.,' Dunlavey said. . . .

"[Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate at Guantanamo,] confirmed the account of the visit. Addington talked a great deal, and it was obvious to her that he was a 'very powerful man' and 'definitely the guy in charge,' with a booming voice and confident style. Gonzales was quiet. Haynes, a friend and protege of Addington's, seemed especially interested in the military commissions, which were to decide the fate of individual detainees. They met with the intelligence people and talked about new interrogation methods. They also witnessed some interrogations. Beaver spent time with the group. Talking about the episode even long afterward made her visibly anxious. Her hand tapped and she moved restlessly in her chair. She recalled the message they had received from the visitors: Do 'whatever needed to be done.' That was a green light from the very top -- the lawyers for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the C.I.A.'"

The details of Qahtani's abusive treatment actually became public back in June 2005, when Adam Zagorin and Michael Duffy of Time magazine published an article based on the "interrogation log" of "Detainee 063," spanning 50 days from November 2002 to early January 2003.

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