Washington Post Politics: Interrogation Prosecutions, First 100 Days, More

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Scott Wilson
Washington Post White House Reporter
Wednesday, April 22, 2009; 11:00 AM

Post White House reporter Scott Wilson took your questions about the Obama administration, possible investigations and prosecutions of Bush administration officials for their roles in interrogating suspects, and the latest news from Washington.

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Scott Wilson: Good morning everyone. Very sorry to be late. Lots going on as we speed toward the 100-Day mark of this administration. I'll get right to your questions.

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Boston: To mix my metaphors, is Obama trying to thread too many needles in the face of swirling winds?

The interogations memos/potential prosecution is the latest example where he seems to be trying to assuage both sides of an issue--releasing the memos but saying he wouldn't prosecute frontline CIA employees. When Rahm went too far on the Sunday shows and the Left protest winds howled, Obama came back yesterday and seemed to reverse his previous stance on "looking forward."

When does prudence and looking at all sides of an issue turn into lack of conviction and leadership?

Scott Wilson: Well, he's certainly trying to thread a lot of needles and, yes, the wind is certainly blowing hard (just to keep a few metaphors going.) It's an excellent question, and one Obama himself gets asked a lot. Why are you trying to do so much at the same time, and is judgment occassionally the casualty? Unlike Presidents Clinton and Bush, Obama made a decision early on to push as many big things as possible at the same time (Clinton, for example, thought the "system" could only handle onoe big thing at a time.) On this particular issue, it's unclear if Obama reversed himself (by contradicting Rahm) or if Rahm got out too far ahead. In any event, yes, he's left the door open (more metaphors!) to look back, even though he had said he preferred not to.

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Lewiston, N.Y.: The headline of today's piece is Harsh Tactics Readied Before Their Approval, when as the story makes clear, these harsh tactics were USED before their approval.

Discuss?

Scott Wilson: You are very right, and those who used the "harsh tactics" - which, let's be honest, the International Committee for the Red Cross calls torture - may be open to prosecution. Obama has said no prosecution for those who operated under the four corners of a legal opinion, even if that opinion is flawed. But that indicates there may be prosecution of those who used these methods before the August 2002 "torture memo" was issued.

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Langley: So multiple sources are now reporting that there was a direct link between waterboarding and getting information from KSM that he previously resisted providing. I would think it would be helpful for both sides to come off their high horses and lay all the cards that we can out (without exposing national security) so that we can have an honest discussion about what was done, and what the results were. What are the chances of Obama letting this happen?

Scott Wilson: Great question, and I completely agree that the country needs a much broader process for determining what happened, why it happened, and what resulted from it (good intel? Bad intel?) if we ever intend to move on from this. I believe the Hill will drive this, not Obama, who yesterday endorsed the idea of a bipartisan commission to take on the questions you raise. I think it will happen...

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Arlington, Va.: None of this stuff coming out now about the torture policies seems very new. Is it just that the government refused to admit it all before even though anyone with half a brain knew that Dick and Rummy and Addington and Yoo and Wolfowitz were the ones responsible for all of this shame to our nation? How likely is it that any of them will ever be prosecuted in the United States for this? Or any other country they might be dumb enough to travel to for that matter?

Scott Wilson: A lot of this has been known thanks to some excellent reporting by Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, and our own Dana Priest, among others. But some of the details are new (waterboarding used 266 times on two detainees alone; the bugs in a box technique - approved, but never used...) I believe the Spanish judge who went after Pinochet is studying the possibility of an indictment, though not sure who he would name in it....

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Minneapolis: Hi Scott -- Thanks for taking questions today. Cheney seems to be the former VP who won't go away. He seems obsessed with trying to salvage whatever is left of the Bush/Cheney legacy at every turn. How does the current administration respond, if at all? Is anyone listening to Cheney anyway, given how blatant his motives are?

Scott Wilson: He does seem to the sole defender, so far, of the Bush administration's war-on-terror practices. Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, responded to him after the first interveiw he gave last month to John King at CNN, saying Rush Limbaugh must not have been available so they brought out the next most popular member of the "Republican cabal." Biden also responded by saying he thought Cheney had a right to say what he's been syaing about Obama making the country less safe, but that he was "dead wrong." He just seems intent on shaping the administration's legacy at the moment.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Has the military and the CIA studied the effects of torture on the torturers? These methods take a toll on everyone involved. What is the price our intelligence officers and military members pay for these horrifying tactics that do, indeed, shock the conscience?

Are torturers provided with mental-health care afterwards so that they won't be prone to suicide and depression?

Scott Wilson: What a good question. I don't know the answer, though. I'd imagine they are entitled to any mental health care available to CIA/DOD employees. But beyond that not sure, and do not know if it's mandatory. Just an aside, one of the reasons the Bush administration argues that these techniques are not torture is because they have been used on tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to prepare them for possible capture and captivity. But this seems to me to be comparing apples an oranges. In training, you know you will not be killed and can always say enough. In enemy captivity - ie, at Guantanamo Bay or one of the black sites - the detainees don't have that option, which must exact a much heavier mental toll.

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Calling Mr. Orwell: I don't understand the media's (and The Post's in particular) penchant for calling "torture" something other than "torture" -- "enhanced interrogation," I believe is the term you're still using. Don't you think that a principal reason why the government has been able to engage with impunity in the extremism and lawlessness of the last decade might just be because most journalists refused, until now, even to describe it as what it is?

Scott Wilson: I thnk I just addressed this in a previous post. How I phrase it is techniques that the International Committee for the Red Cross characterize as torture...I was in Iraq when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and used the word torture in writing about that. But your point is a good one; we should always try to use the most hniest language or attribution in writing about this.

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Fact-finding commissions: Do they really have a very good track record? Thinking of the Warren Commission which never really convinced the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists and the 9/11 commission, which was bi-partisan, and regally ignored by the Bush-Cheney team. What would be the positive outcomes of a bipartisan commission on the sordid story of the torture memos?

Scott Wilson: For me, I'd like a commission like that to answer the question: What was gained through torture, specifcially, and at what cost to the United States' reputation. We know about the memos, we know what methods were used. What we don't know is what intelligence came from torture. How much time was wasted pursuing bad information that came from people under severe duress? And how much intelligence was gained through normal interrogation methods. That's what I would want the focus to be....I think the Church Commission of the 1970s was viewed as a success, fyi.

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Threading too many needles?: The fact that Obama himself opposes prosecutions for torture and other war crimes, or that accountability for these crimes would create political difficulties or "distractions" for the White House, are completely inappropriate reasons for refraining from enforcing the rule of law. Decisions about prosecutions are meant to be apolitical and handled by DOJ. Those decisions are about vindicating equality under the law, not about forging bipartisanship by placating the political party of the criminals and ensuring that our political elites continue, in the name of "harmony," to retain their license to break our laws with impunity. Or am I hopelessly naive?

Scott Wilson: I don't think you are naive. I believe the president said roughly the same thing yesterday, although he did say that the interrogators themselves should not be prosecuted. Maybe he shouldn't have "pre-judged" that for his Justice department, but haven't heard much criticism on that point yet.

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Boston: Hi Scott,

The huge number of times KSM was water boarded seems to me more like they were doing it just for the fun of it rather than as a way of getting any information. If it didn't work after 100 times hard to believe they thought a few more might do the trick.

Scott Wilson: I believe the Senate Armed Services Committee report released last night - the result of an 18-month investigation - says that at least once a person was ordered to be waterboarded even though his interrogators said he had no more information. Not sure what category that falls into in terms of whether to prosecute or not....Juts an aside, some human rights advocates who are experts on torture say waterboarding is actually not the most severe technique that was used by interrogators. They say that after the first few times, the detainee knows the deal (ie, he's not going to drown) and just has to withstand it, though fear itself has dissipated. That's another reason why the hundreds of times on two people seesm so odd. These human rights advocates say sleep deprivation, cold rooms, starvation, and prolonged standing in shackles can actually be mush harder to bear mentally and physically. I think we're overly fixated on the waterboarding, and ignoring some other pretty terrible methods from the conversation.

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SW Nebraska: Did Obama and Chavez "play kissy face" and "who knows what happened behind closed doors" as Fox News commentators say? If not, when will responsible journalists, not just Jon Stewart, call them on it?

Scott Wilson: They were never alone behind closed doors, only in large groups. Should Obama not talk to democratically elected leaders of other countries? I'm not sure I'm seeing the evil you're indicating in this. What should we be "calling them" on? I lived in Venezuela and Colombia form 2000 to 2004. Chavez is a big talker and his anti-Americanism plays well with his domestic audience and other leaders inclined to be hostile to U.S. policies (Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Iran, etc.) But in public, and with a popular U.S. president, he's all smiles. He'll probably have a few nasty things to say about the U.S. in a few weeks. The Bush administration tried to get him to share intelligence with them on the large Arab population that lives on Isla Margarita, then endorsed a militray coup against him after the fact. He poses more of a threat to Colombia, where he is celebrated by the guerrilla insurgency there, than the United States. But if you can tell me what Jon Stewart is reporting that seems so compelling to you, I'll pursue it.

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North Mclean, Va.: Lot's of attention has been given to the effect on morale within the Intelligence Community over fears of being hung out to dry. But please do not forget that there are thousands of employees who had nothing to do with this and who are looking to removing the dark suspicions held by so many about what we do for a living.

Scott Wilson: This seemed to be the president's message when he visited the CIA earlier this week...Good point.

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Boston: Hi Scott,

Why is "just following orders" a sound defense that no one seems to want to question? Did I misunderstand Nuremberg?

Scott Wilson: I'm not sure you want to be comparing orders to carry out waterboarding to orders to carry out the extermination of millions of Jews. The former had a legal rationale behind it whose validity is still being debated today. The latter, obviously, did not. That said, the decision on whether or not to prosecute anyone should probably be left to the Justice Department, not the president, who is concerned about his relationship with the intelligence community.

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Park Ridge, Ill.: So Cheney is apparently asking for the memos showing that torture was effective to be released. As an ex-Vice President, does he have that power, to compel an agency to release classified information? That struck me as a little strange.

Scott Wilson: No, he does not. Just making his case publically that there's more to the story.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning. How might Obama "de-partisanize" the torture issue?

CLEARLY, something needs to be done. But just as clearly, it's going to be incredibly difficult to do anything useful so long as torture is a proxy issue with which to bash or defend the Bush administration.

Scott Wilson: I think it has to be left to Congress, not that they have a great track record of "de-partisanizing" anything.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think Langley's question and your answer misses the point. When considering acceptable interrogation tactics, outcomes are never part of the equation. Otherwise, we simply have a system of the ends justify the means. Some interrogation methods are wrong and illegal even if using them results in saving millions of lives. A tough standard indeed but nonetheless a standard worth fighting and dieing for.

Scott Wilson: You raise a good point. I'm not saying that if torture was shown to have secured valubale intelligence we should keep doing it. I'm saying that as a next step I'd like a broad, open appraisal of what was gained and how. There needs to be an honest accounting, not the piece-meal process, playing out on cable news, that's taking place now. The country needs to know much more in order to have a serious, informed debate about torture, our history with it, and what the policy needs to be.

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Hackensack, NJ: I think SW Nebraska was asking you to call Fox News on their poor reporting, not asking you to call the Obama administration on their interaction with Chavez.

Scott Wilson: Fair enough...I haven't seen Fox News'reporting on the Obama-Chavez encounter, and really don't see my job as "calling" Fox News on how it works. But my apologies to SW Nebraska if I misundertood the nature of his question.

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Pushing as many big things as possible.: Couldn't this be as much a function of understanding the trends in DC? By which I mean that most presidents are at their most effective in terms of passing legislation and making substantive changes, early in their first terms. Leaving aside any assumption that there will be a second term, wouldn't it make sense to take advantage of the Democrat's majority to attempt to deliver as much change as possible? This doesn't of course address the issue of haste making waste but it might at least contextualize the attempt to push.

Scott Wilson: Certainly, but the degree to which he is doing it far exceeds his immediate predecessors, in part of course because of the urgency of the problems he faces.

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Scott Wilson: That's all I have time for today. Thanks very much for joining, and for some excellent questions. Hope to talk to you again next week.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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