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Why Torture Matters: Who Ordered the Torture of Abu Zubaydah?

Featured Post: Mark Danner - If Everyone Knew, Who’s to Blame?
Featured Post: Frank Rich - Why Torture Matters: The Banality of Bush White House Evil

bush-vanity-fair5Andy Worthington in AlterNet

For the defendants of the use of torture by U.S. forces -- still led by former Vice President Dick Cheney -- this has been a rocky few weeks, with the publication, in swift succession, of the leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (PDF), based on interviews with the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, which concluded that their treatment “constituted torture” (and was accompanied by two detailed articles by Mark Danner for the New York Review of Books), the release, by the Justice Department, of four memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in 2002 and 2005, which purported to justify the use of torture by the CIA, and the release of a 231-page investigation into detainee abuse conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee (PDF.)

The publication of the full Senate Committee report was delayed for four months, subject to wrangling over proposed redactions, but the Executive Summary, published last December, had already successfully demolished the Bush administration’s claims that detainee abuse could be blamed on “a few bad apples,” and, instead, blamed it on senior officials who, with the slippery exception of Dick Cheney, included George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, former Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo, former Guantánamo commanders Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

Much of the fallout from the release of these memos and reports has, understandably, focused on the inadequacy of the legal advice offered to the CIA for its “high-value detainee” program by the OLC, whose lawyers have the unique responsibility of interpreting the law as it relates to the powers of the executive branch, and whose advice, therefore, provided the Bush administration with what it regarded as a “golden shield,” which would prevent senior officials from being prosecuted for war crimes. However, if it can be shown that the OLC’s advice was not only inadequate, but also tailored to specific requests from senior officials, then it may be that the “golden shield” will turn to dust.

This threat to the “golden shield” probably explain why Dick Cheney’s scaremongering has been shriller than usual in the last few weeks, but what has largely been overlooked to date is another question that poses even weightier challenges for the former administration: if the use of torture techniques on Abu Zubaydah, the first supposedly significant “high-value detainee” captured by the US (on March 28, 2002), was authorized by two OLC memos issued on August 1, 2002, then who authorized the torture to which he was subjected in the 18 weeks between his capture and the moment that Jay S. Bybee, the head of the OLC, added his signature to the OLC memos?

It’s clear that the major reason this question has been overlooked is because, as the ICRC report reveals, Zubaydah was not subjected to waterboarding (an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning) until after the memo was issued, but what is also apparent is that the treatment to which he was subjected before the waterboard was introduced also “constituted torture.”

Zubaydah was severely wounded during his capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, to the extent that, as President Bush explained in a press conference in September 2006, shortly after Zubaydah and 13 other “high-value detainees” had been transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons, “he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA.” We don’t know if there is any truth to the allegation, made by Ron Suskind in his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, that medication was only administered in exchange for his cooperation (it seems likely, but has been officially denied), but we do know, from James Risen’s book State of War, that when CIA director George Tenet told the President that Zubaydah had been put on pain medication to deal with the injuries he sustained during capture, Bush asked Tenet, “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” which prompted Risen to wonder whether the President was “implicitly encouraging” Tenet to order the harsh treatment of a prisoner “without the paper trail that would have come from a written presidential authorization.”

We also know that, shortly after his capture, Zubaydah was flown to Thailand, to a secret underground prison provided by the Thai government, where, as a New York Times article in September 2006 explained, “he was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music -- the genesis of practices later adopted by some within the military, and widely used by the Central Intelligence Agency in handling prominent terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons.”

The details of his treatment, “based on accounts by former and current law enforcement and intelligence officials,” were even more shocking. We have become somewhat inured, over the years, to stories of prisoners deprived of sleep for disturbing long periods of time, in which the use of loud, non-stop music -- in this case, the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- played an integral part.

This in itself is unacceptable, as the use of music is not simply a matter of being forced to listen to the same song over and over again at ear-splitting volume, but is, instead, a component in a program of sleep deprivation and isolation designed to provoke a complete mental breakdown. One of the major reference points for the CIA in the 1950s, when it was deeply involved in investigating the efficacy of psychological torture techniques, was research conducted by Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, who discovered that, “if subjects are confined without light, odor, sound, or any fixed references of time and place, very deep breakdowns can be provoked,” and that, within just 48 hours, those held in what he termed “perceptual isolation” can be reduced to semi-psychotic states.

However, while some interpretation and empathy is required to understand the impact on Abu Zubaydah of his profound isolation in this period, in which, as the Times also reported, he was largely cut off from all human interaction, only occasionally punctuated by an interrogator entering his cell, saying, “You know what I want,” and then leaving, there is no denying the visceral impact of the following description. “At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets,” the Times explained. “He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue” (emphasis added).

Further information about Zubaydah’s treatment in Thailand has not emerged in great detail. In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer noted only that he was “held naked in a small cage, like a dog,” and the ICRC report focused instead on his detention in Afghanistan, from May 2002 to February 2003. What we do know, however, from the Senate Committee’s report, is that an FBI agent was so appalled by his treatment at the hands of CIA agents that he “raised objections to these techniques to the CIA and told the CIA it was ‘borderline torture,’” and that, sometime later, FBI director Robert Mueller “decided that FBI agents would not participate in interrogations involving techniques the FBI did not normally use in the United States.” We also know from Jane Mayer that R. Scott Shumate, the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, left his job in 2003, apparently disgusted by developments involving the use of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and that “associates described him as upset in particular about the treatment of Zubaydah.”

Moreover, although the ICRC report dealt only with Zubaydah’s treatment in Afghanistan, it’s also clear that the techniques to which he was subjected in Afghanistan, in the approximately two and a half months before the OLC memos were signed, also “constituted torture.”

In his statement to the ICRC, Zubaydah explained how, even before the waterboarding began, he was strapped naked to a chair for several weeks in a cell that was “air-conditioned and very cold,” deprived of food, subjected to extreme sleep deprivation for two to three weeks -- partly by means of loud music or incessant noise, and partly because, “If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face” -- and, for the rest of the time, until the waterboarding began, was subjected to further sleep deprivation, and kept in a state of perpetual fear.

This array of techniques undoubtedly appears less dramatic than the “real torturing” that followed (in which the waterboarding was accompanied by physical brutality, hooding, the daily shaving of his hair and beard, and confinement in small boxes), but, again, it is critical to try to imagine what two to three weeks of chronic sleep deprivation actually means, and to recall that, by the time Steven G. Bradbury, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, revised the approval for torture techniques in May 2005, it was noted that it was only considered acceptable to subject a prisoner to 180 hours (seven and a half days) of sleep deprivation.

To understand how torture came to be used before it was officially approved, we need to return to the New York Times article of September 2006, which explained how, according to accounts by three former intelligence officials, the CIA “understood that the legal foundation for its role had been spelled out in a sweeping classified directive” signed by President Bush on September 17, 2001, which authorized the agency “to capture, detain and interrogate terrorism suspects.”

Significantly, this “memorandum of notification” did not spell out specific guidelines for interrogations, but as later research, and the latest reports have confirmed, the directive led to focused efforts by the CIA, and by William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s General Counsel (and a protégé of Dick Cheney), to contact foreign governments for advice on harsh interrogation techniques, and to begin a relationship with a number of individuals involved in the Joint Personnel Recovery Program (JPRA), the body responsible for administering the SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), which is taught at U.S. military schools.

Designed to teach military personnel how to resist interrogation if captured by a hostile enemy, the SERE program uses outlawed techniques derived from techniques used on captured U.S. soldiers during the Korean War to elicit deliberately false confessions, and includes, as the Senate Committee report explained, “stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures.” In some circumstances, the techniques also include waterboarding, and, as numerous sources -- including the recently released reports and memos -- have revealed over the last few years, the reverse-engineering of the SERE techniques constituted the bedrock of the administration’s interrogation program, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo to the secret dungeons of the CIA.

As we also know, from the pioneering research conducted by Jane Mayer, by the time that the CIA took over Zubaydah’s interrogation from the FBI, in April 2002, the team included Dr. David Mitchell, a retired Air Force SERE psychologist. Thanks to the detailed timeline provided by the Senate Committee, we now know that it was Haynes who first inquired about the applicability of the SERE program to the interrogation of prisoners in December 2001, and we also know that, in April 2002, while “experienced intelligence officers were making recommendations to improve intelligence collection” -- which, noticeably, included an assessment by Col. Stuart A. Herrington, a retired Army intelligence officer, that a regime based solely on punishment “detracts from the flexibility that debriefers require to accomplish their mission” -- “JPRA officials with no training or experience were working on their own exploitation plan,” and a colleague of Mitchell’s, Bruce Jessen, a senior SERE psychologist, was providing recommendations for JPRA involvement in the “exploitation of select al-Qaeda detainees” in an “exploitation facility” to be established especially for the purpose -- which, presumably, turned out to be the secret dungeon provided by the Thai government.

We also know from Mayer that discussions about the CIA’s proposed interrogation techniques, in April 2002, involved numerous other senior officials -- beyond the key involvement of Haynes -- in meetings in the White House’s Situation Room that were chaired by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and attended by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, and, moreover, that the level of detail provided by Tenet appalled Ashcroft to such an extent that he lamented, “History will not judge us kindly.”

This is disturbing enough, but what makes it even more chilling is the realization that the tactics being discussed, which, it is clear, led swiftly to their enactment in actual interrogations, were some months away from being authorized by the OLC. As the Times article explained, in what was perhaps its most damning passage, “Three former intelligence officials said the techniques had been drawn up on the basis of legal guidance from the Justice Department, but were not yet supported by a formal legal opinion.”

In my book, this means that, regardless of the validity of the OLC’s opinions, those who authorized the torture of Abu Zubaydah between March 28 and July 31, 2002 are not protected by the OLC’s supposed “golden shield,” and should be prosecuted for contravening the prohibition on the use of torture that, since 1988, has been enshrined in U.S. law. This may not apply to all of those who attended the meetings in the White House (plus Haynes), but it’s inconceivable that the CIA began subjecting Abu Zubaydah to chronic isolation and sleep deprivation with receiving approval from somebody in high office.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Obama administration is committed to abiding by the laws that President Obama praised so lavishly during his election campaign, or whether, instead, he and his administration are committed to reading from a different book: How to Torture With Impunity And Get Away With It, by former Vice President Dick Cheney and an array of associates, all intoxicated with the thrill of unfettered executive power, which concludes by claiming that you get away with breaking any damn law that you please, so long as you’re voted out of office at the end.

Why Torture Matters: If Everyone Knew, Who's to Blame?

Featured Post: Andy Worthington - Who Ordered the Torture of Abu Zubaydah?
Featured Post: Frank Rich - Why Torture Matters: The Banality of Bush White House Evil

bush-vanity-fair4Mark Danner in The Washington Post

Here's a question: When was the last time American officials waterboarded a detainee? Well, that would be 2003 -- six years ago. Here's another: When did Americans first find out about it? That would be 2004 -- five years ago. May 13, 2004, to be precise, in an article in the New York Times that informed readers that "C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as 'water boarding,' in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown."

The first paradox of the torture scandal is that it is not about things we didn't know but about things we did know and did nothing about. Beginning more than a half-dozen years ago, Bush administration officials broke the law and did repugnant things to detainees under their control. But if you think that the remedy is simple and clear -- that all officials who broke the law should be tried and punished -- then ask yourself what exactly the political elite of the country has been doing for the last five years. Or what it has not been doing. And why.

However much we would like the scandal to be confined to the story of what was done in those isolated rooms on the other side of the world where interrogators plied their arts, and in the air-conditioned government offices where officials devised "legal" rationales, the story includes a second narrative that tells of a society that knew about these things and chose to do nothing.

Unlike Watergate or Iran-contra, today's scandal emerges not from a shocking revelation of wrongdoing but from a long process of disclosure during which Americans have stared at blatant lawbreaking with apparent equanimity. This means Democrats as well as Republicans, including those in Congress who were willing to approve, as late as September 2006, a law, the Military Commissions Act, that purported to shield those who had applied these "enhanced interrogation techniques" from prosecution under the War Crimes Act.

Though they could have filibustered the bill, Democrats let it pass into law. The midterm elections loomed, and it was no secret that the president had introduced the bill partly as a trap -- a little bait that might allow any Democrat who spoke up against it to be accused of wanting to "coddle terrorists." Having been burned by the "politics of fear" in 2002 and 2004, Democrats stood aside. Six weeks later, they won control of Congress.

The dirty little secret of the torture scandal and of all the loud expressions of outrage now clogging the country's airwaves is that until very recently, the politics of torture cut in the opposite direction. This is why, although we have known the general narrative of torture since the summer of 2004, most politicians have been loath to do anything about it. Republicans ordered it and, then as now, supported its use -- as long as they could call it something else. Democrats, on the defensive since 9/11 as the party of weakness on national security, saw no interest in taking up a cause perceived to be deeply unpopular. In the wake of 9/11, taking the gloves off was a badge of authenticity. Did Democrats really want to make themselves the party that stood for the rights of Khalid Sheik Mohammed?

The answer to this question, until recently, was no -- as long, that is, as Americans could be assured that torture, called by whatever euphemism, was necessary to keep the country safe. Which is why Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial" to preventing "a major-casualty attack." This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law. It says that the professed principles of the United States, if genuinely adhered to, doom the country to defeat. It reduces our ideals and laws to a national decoration, to be discarded at the first sign of danger.

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to "do anything" to protect the country. That leads to the second paradox of torture: Even after all we know, the political task at hand -- the first task, without which none of the others, including prosecutions, can follow -- remains one of full and patient and relentless revelation of what was done and what it cost the country, authoritative revelation undertaken by respected people of both parties whose words will be heard and believed.

The outlines, long known, are being filled in. Several weeks ago I published in the New York Review of Books the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which gave detailed first-person accounts of those who were tortured at "the black sites." Shortly thereafter, the Obama administration released four memorandums written by Justice Department lawyers that "made legal" the torture described in the Red Cross report. These are chilling documents, linked hand in hand in a bureaucratic danse macabre: detainees' accounts of what was clearly torture and lawyers' twisted rationale of why it was not.

The irony is that those Justice Department memos were written for just this moment: the moment when all would come to light. That they exist is a chronicle of scandal foretold. The memos are the true offspring of the Church Commission, the mid-1970s investigation of CIA wrongdoing that looms over this scandal and that changed forever how covert actions were conducted. Before Church, "black ops" were undertaken with no explicit legal order: If wrongdoing came to light, the president denied knowledge. After Church, the president was required to sign a "finding" making approval explicit. For former Vice President Cheney and others, the findings and other reforms that followed from Church -- including FISA and other laws that limited the president's power to use the CIA -- were in essence when "the gloves went on."

And so, after 9/11, when the gloves came off, there would be no deniability: All was documented with lawyers' briefs and study group reports and official signatures. That leads to the third paradox of torture: Responsibility is spread so broadly, beginning, as they say, "at the highest level," that the political problem is not whether, eventually, to prosecute but whom, and how high. Too many are implicated: George Tenet and others at the CIA saw to that. They foresaw precisely this moment, and they were determined, when the music stopped, not to be the only ones left standing with no chair.

And now, as the great clangorous machinery of Washington scandal rumbles into life, everywhere one looks former officials stand, without chairs and without places to hide.

If justice is allowed to follow its course, then some prosecutions will eventually come, but they alone cannot lead us back to political health. For that, President Obama and Congress need to authorize an authoritative bipartisan investigation of what was done and how, for that is the only way to destroy definitively the idea that the United States must torture to defend itself. For the moment, the president, an ambitious leader who wants to "look forward" and not back, sees only the political costs of such an inquiry, which will be considerable. But the country has already incurred those costs and the damage in not paying them now will be far greater.

Like most mystiques built on secrecy, the mystique of torture will only disappear once a cold hard light has been shone on it by trustworthy people who can examine all the evidence and speak to the country with authority. We need an investigation that will ruthlessly analyze the controversial and persistent assertions that torture averted attacks and will place alongside them the evidence that it has done great harm to the United States, not only to the country's reputation for following and upholding the law but also to its ability to render justice. In torturing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his fellows we have created a class of permanent martyrs, unjustly imprisoned in the eyes of the world because they cannot be legitimately tried and punished. We have let torture destroy justice.

Those who break the law should be punished. This includes those who torture no less than those who kill. But prosecutions of those who tortured, if they come before a public investigation, will not end the argument. On the contrary, they will appear to much of the country as yet another partisan turn in the bitter politics of national security, launched to persecute those who only did what was necessary to protect the country. They will encourage those who defend torture to espouse even more bitterly a corrosive counter-narrative according to which only those who torture can be trusted to protect Americans.

To expose this dark counter-narrative to the light of day, to flood it with light and then destroy it, is the vital political task, not only for today but for tomorrow, when the pressures to believe it, in the wake of a further act of mass destruction could well prove irresistible. If that happens, America will become something wholly different -- and the paradoxes of torture will have entangled us all.

Why Torture Matters: The Banality of Bush White House Evil

Featured Post: Andy Worthington - Who Ordered the Torture of Abu Zubaydah?
Featured Post: Mark Danner - If Everyone Knew, Who’s to Blame?

bush-vanity-fair3Frank Rich in The New York Times

We don’t like our evil to be banal. Ten years after Columbine, it only now may be sinking in that the psychopathic killers were not jock-hating dorks from a “Trench Coat Mafia,” or, as ABC News maintained at the time, “part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement.” In the new best seller “Columbine,” the journalist Dave Cullen reaffirms that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.

On Tuesday, it will be five years since Americans first confronted the photographs from Abu Ghraib on “60 Minutes II.” Here, too, we want to cling to myths that quarantine the evil. If our country committed torture, surely it did so to prevent Armageddon, in a patriotic ticking-time-bomb scenario out of “24.” If anyone deserves blame, it was only those identified by President Bush as “a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values”: promiscuous, sinister-looking lowlifes like Lynddie England, Charles Graner and the other grunts who were held accountable while the top command got a pass.

We’ve learned much, much more about America and torture in the past five years. But as Mark Danner recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, for all the revelations, one essential fact remains unchanged: “By no later than the summer of 2004, the American people had before them the basic narrative of how the elected and appointed officials of their government decided to torture prisoners and how they went about it.” When the Obama administration said it declassified four new torture memos 10 days ago in part because their contents were already largely public, it was right.

Yet we still shrink from the hardest truths and the bigger picture: that torture was a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels; that it was carried out in scenarios that had no resemblance to “24”; that psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and that, in the assessment of reliable sources like the F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.

The newly released Justice Department memos, like those before them, were not written by barely schooled misfits like England and Graner. John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee graduated from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan and Brigham Young. They have passed through white-shoe law firms like Covington & Burling, and Sidley Austin.

Judge Bybee’s résumé tells us that he has four children and is both a Cubmaster for the Boy Scouts and a youth baseball and basketball coach. He currently occupies a tenured seat on the United States Court of Appeals. As an assistant attorney general, he was the author of the Aug. 1, 2002, memo endorsing in lengthy, prurient detail interrogation “techniques” like “facial slap (insult slap)” and “insects placed in a confinement box.”

He proposed using 10 such techniques “in some sort of escalating fashion, culminating with the waterboard, though not necessarily ending with this technique.” Waterboarding, the near-drowning favored by Pol Pot and the Spanish Inquisition, was prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II. But Bybee concluded that it “does not, in our view, inflict ‘severe pain or suffering.’ ”

Still, it’s not Bybee’s perverted lawyering and pornographic amorality that make his memo worthy of special attention. It merits a closer look because it actually does add something new — and, even after all we’ve heard, something shocking — to the five-year-old torture narrative. When placed in full context, it’s the kind of smoking gun that might free us from the myths and denial that prevent us from reckoning with this ugly chapter in our history.

Bybee’s memo was aimed at one particular detainee, Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured some four months earlier, in late March 2002. Zubaydah is portrayed in the memo (as he was publicly by Bush after his capture) as one of the top men in Al Qaeda. But by August this had been proven false. As Ron Suskind reported in his book “The One Percent Doctrine,” Zubaydah was identified soon after his capture as a logistics guy, who, in the words of the F.B.I.’s top-ranking Qaeda analyst at the time, Dan Coleman, served as the terrorist group’s flight booker and “greeter,” like “Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace.” Zubaydah “knew very little about real operations, or strategy.” He showed clinical symptoms of schizophrenia.

By the time Bybee wrote his memo, Zubaydah had been questioned by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for months and had given what limited information he had. His most valuable contribution was to finger Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind. But, as Jane Mayer wrote in her book “The Dark Side,” even that contribution may have been old news: according to the 9/11 commission, the C.I.A. had already learned about Mohammed during the summer of 2001. In any event, as one of Zubaydah’s own F.B.I. questioners, Ali Soufan, wrote in a Times Op-Ed article last Thursday, traditional interrogation methods had worked. Yet Bybee’s memo purported that an “increased pressure phase” was required to force Zubaydah to talk.

As soon as Bybee gave the green light, torture followed: Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002, according to another of the newly released memos. Unsurprisingly, it appears that no significant intelligence was gained by torturing this mentally ill Qaeda functionary. So why the overkill? Bybee’s memo invoked a ticking time bomb: “There is currently a level of ‘chatter’ equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks.”

We don’t know if there was such unusual “chatter” then, but it’s unlikely Zubaydah could have added information if there were. Perhaps some new facts may yet emerge if Dick Cheney succeeds in his unexpected and welcome crusade to declassify documents that he says will exonerate administration interrogation policies. Meanwhile, we do have evidence for an alternative explanation of what motivated Bybee to write his memo that August, thanks to the comprehensive Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees released last week.

The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

Last week Bush-Cheney defenders, true to form, dismissed the Senate Armed Services Committee report as “partisan.” But as the committee chairman, Carl Levin, told me, the report received unanimous support from its members — John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman included.

Levin also emphasized the report’s accounts of military lawyers who dissented from White House doctrine — only to be disregarded. The Bush administration was “driven,” Levin said. By what? “They’d say it was to get more information. But they were desperate to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”

Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to “protect” us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from “another 9/11,” torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House’s illegality.

Levin suggests — and I agree — that as additional fact-finding plays out, it’s time for the Justice Department to enlist a panel of two or three apolitical outsiders, perhaps retired federal judges, “to review the mass of material” we already have. The fundamental truth is there, as it long has been. The panel can recommend a legal path that will insure accountability for this wholesale betrayal of American values.

President Obama can talk all he wants about not looking back, but this grotesque past is bigger than even he is. It won’t vanish into a memory hole any more than Andersonville, World War II internment camps or My Lai. The White House, Congress and politicians of both parties should get out of the way. We don’t need another commission. We don’t need any Capitol Hill witch hunts. What we must have are fair trials that at long last uphold and reclaim our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.

UPDATE: Taking Apart the Bushmen's Defence of Torture

Related Post: Video - Dick Cheney’s Fox News Interview and the Defense of Torture

cheney1Further to this morning's blog about former Vice President Cheney's bold if faintly ludicrous manoeuvre on Fox News to call for the declassification of Government memoranda that prove torture worked, there are two notable pieces in The Washington Post.

First, the ridiculous. Marc Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for President Bush but has somehow transformed into a "senior" Adminstration official in recent weeks, claims, "The CIA's Questioning Worked". He tries to prove this through one of the four declassified memoranda from last week, the July 2005 "finding" by Government lawyer Stephen Bradbury that rationalised torture.

It doesn't seem to worry Thiessen that the same memorandum constructing an argument for illegal interrogation might just exaggerate or even lie about the benefits of those interrogations. For example, Thiessen writes, "Interrogations of [Abu] Zubaydah -- again, once enhanced techniques were employed -- furnished detailed information regarding al Qaeda's 'organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi' and identified KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammad] as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks."

Too bad the former speechwriter forgot to read the 29 March article in the same paper that published his editorial:
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Now, the sublime. Dan Froomkin once again takes apart the "torture works" argument of Cheney, Thiessen, and other former Government officials. Today's analysis is so well-documented that it should be available as a rebuttal to anyone who tries to evade the full extent of the Bush Administration's criminal activity:

Separating Truths From Lies

Time and again, George W. Bush's White House constructed and occupied its own alternate realities to suit its political needs.

Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Then "Mission Accomplished" and, for nearly four years, the insurgency was "in its last throes." Having declared that his team was fully prepared beforehand, Bush praised them after Hurricane Katrina for going a "heckuva job." He insisted repeatedly that we don't torture. It was an official administration position that tax cuts increased tax revenues, and that the economy was strong.

The decisions based on these non-realities were, not surprisingly, among the most disastrous of the Bush era. And all along, Bush was aided and abetted by a mainstream press corps that got accustomed to presenting "both sides of the story" rather than differentiating fact from fiction -- or what might be called truth from lies. Now a large fraction of the United States seems to occupy its own reality, even served by its own news outlets.

Why do I bring this up again? Because it's anything but ancient history. This denial of reality continues to infect our political discourse over the darkest of all the Bush legacies: The policy of treating detainees with deliberate cruelty, and torturing them. It is objective fact that the Bush administration consciously adopted tactics that are not just morally reprehensible and flatly illegal, but which experts says don't produce reliable intelligence -- just coerced confessions.

The argument in defense of the administration, made primarily by those who were complicit, is that it wasn't torture and it worked. But an increasingly critical mass of investigative reporting, supported by the release of key legal documents, has made it quite clear -- at least to those of us in what a Bush aide famously and contemptuously referred to as the "reality-based community" -- that those arguments are spurious.

Nevertheless, as unsupported by reality as those claims are, they will continue to be effective with at least some the public -- and the traditional media will continue to depict this as a story with two sides -- until or unless some sort of trusted, exhaustive and official investigation takes place, rendering an authoritative verdict on what happened, why, who was responsible, and what lessons we should learn.

Mark Danner made this case brilliantly (and at length) in his second New York Review of Books essay about the International Committee of the Red Cross report on 14 detainees held at the CIA's secret prison, which he both described and Web-published.

The Bush administration's counter-narrative, championed most assertively by vice president Dick Cheney, is that if it hadn't been for the "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects, we would have been attacked again. But as Danner puts it: "Cheney's story is made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret."

Danner writes: "The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the 'politics of fear' is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved. That this has not yet happened is the reason why, despite the innumerable reports and studies and revelations that have given us a rich and vivid picture of the Bush administration's policies of torture, we as a society have barely advanced along this path. We have not so far managed, despite all the investigations, to produce a bipartisan, broadly credible, and politically decisive effort, and pronounce authoritatively on whether or not these activities accomplished anything at all in their stated and still asserted purpose: to protect the security interests of the country.

"This cannot be accomplished through the press; for the same institutional limitations that lead journalists to keep repeating Bush and Cheney's insistence about the 'legality' of torture make it impossible for the press alone, no matter how persuasive the leaks it brings to the public, to make a politically decisive judgment on the value of torture.... What is needed is ... a broadly persuasive judgment, delivered by people who can look at all the evidence, however highly classified, and can claim bipartisan respect on the order of the Watergate Select Committee or the 9/11 Commission, on whether or not torture made Americans safer."

The Bush apologists think their best argument for torture is the case of Abu Zubaida, who they insist provided information under duress that prevented further attacks. And compared to the possibly hundreds of arguably completely innocent detainees turned in to American authorities for bounties and routinely beaten, sometimes to death, at the military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, they may have point.

Yet ever since Ron Suskind came out with his book, The One Percent Doctrine, in June 2006, there's been persuasive evidence that almost all the administration's claims about Zubaida were wrong -- and that intelligence officials mischaracterized his value so Bush wouldn't lose face.

That evidence continued to mount with a March 29 Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick. See my March 30 post: Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked.

Now Scott Shane writes in Saturday's New York Times that the Bush administration's decision to ratchet up the brutality inflicted upon Zubaida, including repeated waterboarding, came "despite the belief of interrogators that the prisoner had already told them all he knew, according to former intelligence officials and a footnote in a newly released legal memorandum.

"The escalation to especially brutal interrogation tactics against the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, including confining him in boxes and slamming him against the wall, was ordered by officials at C.I.A. headquarters based on a highly inflated assessment of his importance, interviews and a review of newly released documents show...

"[S]enior agency officials, still persuaded, as they had told President George W. Bush and his staff, that he was an important Qaeda leader, insisted that he must know more.

"'You get a ton of information, but headquarters says, "There must be more,"' recalled one intelligence officer who was involved in the case. As described in the footnote to the memo, the use of repeated waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah was ordered 'at the direction of C.I.A. headquarters,' and officials were dispatched from headquarters 'to watch the last waterboard session.'...

"'He pleaded for his life,' the official said. 'But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give.'...

"Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said."

But none of this matters to the defenders of torture.

Former Bush administration officials Michael Hayden and Michael B. Mukasey wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday with the spurious claim that Zubaida "was coerced into disclosing information that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh, another of the planners of Sept. 11, who in turn disclosed information which -- when combined with what was learned from Abu Zubaydah -- helped lead to the capture of KSM and other senior terrorists, and the disruption of follow-on plots aimed at both Europe and the U.S."

This although, as I've written previously, Bin al Shibh was captured almost half a year after Zubaida was, and Suskind has reported that the key information about his location came not from Zubaida but from an al-Jazeera reporter.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page was even able to find someone -- in this case, dependable Bush apologists David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey -- to say the tactics weren't even torture.

And here, via Real Clear Politics, is Hayden on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, sticking to his guns: "In September 2006, President Bush gave a speech on the Abu Zubaydah case. He pointed out that he -- Zubaydah gave us nominal information, probably more valuable than he thought. He clammed up. The decision was made to use techniques.

"After that decision was made and the techniques were used, he gave up more valuable information, including the information that led to the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh. After the New York Times story yesterday, I called a few friends to make sure my memory was correct, and I guess, to quote somebody from your profession, we stand by our story.

"The critical information we got from Abu Zubaydah came after we began the EITs -- the enhanced interrogation techniques."

Wallace: "Not before."

Hayden: "No."

Danner's argument about the need for "a broadly persuasive judgment" is compelling, and well worth reading. I would simply add that we need a lot more disclosure before such a judgment can be reached. In fact, over at, where I am deputy editor, we are today kicking off a series of articles calling attention to all the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed after 9/11. We chose that focus because we think that when you think about how much remains hidden, how many issues are still unresolved, how many injustices have never been redressed, and how little accountability there has been, it's hard to make the argument that we're ready to move on.

Meanwhile, the memos I wrote about on Friday continue to disgorge new information and generate debate. And it seems that President Obama, who said in a statement that those who followed the legal advice in the memos won't be prosecuted, doesn't want to see anyone prosecuted at all.

Scott Shane reports this morning in the New York Times: "C.I.A. interrogators used waterboarding, the near-drowning technique that top Obama administration officials have described as illegal torture, 266 times on two key prisoners from Al Qaeda, far more than had been previously reported.

"The C.I.A. officers used waterboarding at least 83 times in August 2002 against Abu Zubaydah, according to a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum....

"The 2005 memo also says that the C.I.A. used waterboarding 183 times in March 2003 against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks....

"The fact that waterboarding was repeated so many times may raise questions about its effectiveness, as well as about assertions by Bush administration officials that their methods were used under strict guidelines....

"The new information on the number of waterboarding episodes came out over the weekend when a number of bloggers, including Marcy Wheeler of the blog emptywheel, discovered it in the May 30, 2005, memo.

"The sentences in the memo containing that information appear to have been redacted from some copies but are visible in others. Initial news reports about the memos in The New York Times and other publications did not include the numbers."

Sarah Gantz and Ben Meyerson write in the Los Angeles Times: "The conclusion in recently released Justice Department memos that CIA interrogation techniques would not cause prolonged mental harm is disputed by some doctors and psychologists, who say that the mental damage incurred from the practices is significant and undeniable."

No kidding. See, for instance, this report from Physicians for Human Rights.

The Associated Press reports: "An Austrian newspaper quotes the U.N.'s top torture investigator as saying President Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute CIA operatives who used questionable interrogation practices violates international law.

"Manfred Nowak is quoted in Der Standard as saying the United States has committed itself under the U.N. Convention against Torture to make torture a crime and to prosecute those suspected of engaging in it."

Nevertheless, R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration opposes any effort to prosecute those in the Justice Department who drafted legal memos authorizing harsh interrogations at secret CIA prisons, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said yesterday....

"Emanuel's dismissal of the idea went beyond Obama's pledge not to prosecute CIA officers who acted on the Justice Department's legal advice."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Until Americans and their leaders fully understand the rules the Bush administration concocted to justify such abuses — and who set the rules and who approved them — there is no hope of fixing a profoundly broken system of justice and ensuring that that these acts are never repeated.

"The abuses and the dangers do not end with the torture memos. Americans still know far too little about President Bush’s decision to illegally eavesdrop on Americans — a program that has since been given legal cover by the Congress."

Obama "has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners — in violation of international law and the Constitution.

"That investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening memos."

Timothy Rutten writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "The president is whistling past the graveyard... when he insists that this is "a time for reflection, not retribution." Without facts, reflection is little more than daydreaming. That's why Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) is right to call for a truth commission that can render an accurate historical accounting of the executive branch's shameful conduct over the last seven years.

"A truth commission is particularly important because of the public rhetoric of former Bush administration officials -- the very ones who pushed so hard behind closed doors for permission to torture and who have argued so strenuously that the legal memos ought to remain secret.

"These officials, foremost among them former Vice President Dick Cheney, have not simply argued that releasing the memos and renouncing the kind of interrogation they sanctioned is bad national security policy or legally mistaken. Instead, they've gone well beyond that and actually insisted that torture 'worked.'"

And oh boy! Cheney will be on Fox News with Sean Hannity tonight.