By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 03/16/2009
Here's another good reason to have some sort of authoritative public reckoning of the Bush administration's dark legacy: Until we deal with it once and for all, it will come back to haunt us time and time again.
The latest reminder of horror is now upon us, from the mouths of brutalized detainees and in the form of a conclusion by the International Red Cross -- the world's authority on the subject -- that their treatment undeniably amounted to torture.
Mark Danner, one of the great chroniclers of the Bush administration, somehow obtained a copy of the international organization's confidential report based on its interviews with the 14 "high value detainees" who were held in the CIA's network of secret prisons for periods ranging from 16 months to almost four and a half years.
The report, which made the rounds of the CIA and the White House two years ago, offers a damning portrait of cruelty. From the statements of individual detainees who had never been allowed to speak to each other, a clear method emerges based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, forced standing, repeated beatings and countless applications of cold water including, of course, waterboarding.
The ICRC's conclusion is inescapable: "The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
As Danner tells NPR: "Its determination that these activities were torture is absolutely definitive, absolutely authoritative. These activities were torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross says so, and they use the definitions in treaties the United States has signed on to."
Compare this with, for instance, former president George W. Bush's September 6, 2006, speech, in which he for the first time publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret prisons and what he called the CIA's "alternative set of procedures" for interrogation. "These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations," he said. "The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary."
Here is what Abu Zubaydah, the first al Qaeda operative to be captured and tortured, told the ICRC, via Danner: "'I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck; they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.'
"The prisoner was then put in a coffin-like black box, about 4 feet by 3 feet and 6 feet high, 'for what I think was about one and a half to two hours.' He added: The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside.... They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.'"
By the time al Qaeda operative Walid bin Attash was captured a year later, Danner writes, the CIA was instead using "a plastic collar, which seems to have been a refinement of the towel that had been looped around Abu Zubaydah's neck."
Here is alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed describing his waterboarding: "I would be strapped to a special bed, which could be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth would be placed over my face. Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe.... The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the water-boarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breath. Female interrogators were also present...and a doctor was always present, standing out of sight behind the head of [the] bed, but I saw him when he came to fix a clip to my finger which was connected to a machine. I think it was to measure my pulse and oxygen content in my blood. So they could take me to [the] breaking point."
And don't think these actions and many others can't be traced directly back to the White House. They can.
In December 2007, FBI agent John Kiriakou, who participated in Zubaydah's capture and early questioning, told ABC News that every decision leading to the torture of CIA detainees was documented and approved in cables to and from Washington.
And last April, ABC News reported that top Bush aides, including former vice president Cheney, micromanaged interrogation tactics from the White House basement.
"The high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed," ABC's sources said, "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic." Those discussions started right after Zubaydah's capture in the spring of 2002. According to ABC, the CIA briefed the White House group on its plans to use aggressive techniques against Zubaydah and received explicit approval.
Techniques that created damage short of "the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function" were later authorized in an August 2002 Justice Department memo, known as the Torture Memo.
For his part, Danner traces it all back to the administration's message after 9/11 that the gloves were to come off. "It is no accident that two of the administration's most powerful officials, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, served as young men in very senior positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations. They had witnessed firsthand the gloves going on and, in the weeks after the September 11 attacks, they argued powerfully that it was those limitations — and, it was implied, not a failure to heed warnings — that had helped lead, however indirectly, to the country's vulnerability to attack.
"And so, after a devastating and unprecedented attack, the gloves came off. Guided by the President and his closest advisers, the United States transformed itself from a country that, officially at least, condemned torture to a country that practiced it. And this fateful decision, however much we may want it to, will not go away, any more than the fourteen 'high-value detainees,' tortured and thus unprosecutable, will go away. Like the grotesque stories in the ICRC report, the decision sits before us, a toxic fact, polluting our political and moral life."
Danner writes about "the dark moral epic of the Bush administration, in the coils of whose contradictions we find ourselves entangled still." And there are many such contradictions. Among them: "Consider the uncompromising words of Eric Holder, the attorney general, who in reply to a direct question at his confirmation hearings had declared, 'waterboarding is torture.' There is nothing ambiguous about this statement — nor about the equally blunt statements of several high Bush administration officials, including the former vice-president and the director of the CIA, confirming unequivocally that the administration had ordered and directed that prisoners under its control be waterboarded."
Another major theme of Danner's piece is that, despite the repeated assertions of the Bush administration, there's no evidence that, at long last, any of this torture did us any good at all. That's another point I couldn't agree with more.
"In the wake of the ICRC report one can make several definitive statements," Danner writes:
"1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.
"2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.
"3. The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration—which had been covered widely in the press, and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select few of its members—passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.
"4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so — a decision that had much to do with the proximity of the midterm elections, in the run-up to which, they feared, the President and his Republican allies might gain advantage by accusing them of 'coddling terrorists.'...
"5. The political damage to the United States' reputation, and to the 'soft power' of its constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought on a worldwide scale—which is to say, a political war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the critical target of opportunity—the United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat, undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us."
Joby Warrick, Peter Finn and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post that "[a]t least five copies of the report were shared with the CIA and top White House officials in 2007...
"Many of the details of alleged mistreatment at CIA prisons had been reported previously, but the ICRC report is the most authoritative account and the first to use the word 'torture' in a legal context.
"The CIA declined to comment. A U.S. official familiar with the report said, 'It is important to bear in mind that the report lays out claims made by the terrorists themselves.'...
"'These reports are from an impeccable source,' said Geneve Mantri, a counterterrorism specialist at Amnesty International. 'It's clear that senior officials were warned from the very beginning that the treatment that detainees were subjected to amounted to torture. This story goes even further and deeper than many us of suspected. The more details we find out, the more shocking this becomes.'"The Battle Ahead
By Dan Froomkin
12:31 PM ET, 03/16/2009
I've been arguing for a while now that establishment Washington -- complicit in so many of the irresponsible policies that President Obama is trying to reverse -- would inevitably put up resistance.
And while I've been largely focusing on Obama's domestic policy, I should note that Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, makes the case that the same thing is happening in the foreign policy realm as well. Obama's "striking moves in foreign policy" have left "the Washington establishment... mostly fretting, dismayed in one way or another by most of these moves." Indeed, Zakaria writes: "The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own — Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world."
Anyway, last week it became abundantly obvious that inside the Beltway, the honeymoon was definitely over.
Providing more evidence, the headline on Washington Post opinion columnist David S. Broder's Sunday column was: "End of the Honeymoon": "His critics in Washington and around the world have found their voices, and they are subjecting his administration to the kind of skeptical questioning that is normal for chief executives once they settle into their jobs," Broder writes.
"Congress has taken note of the way Obama backed down from his anti-earmark stance, a clear signal that he is leery of any showdown with the lawmakers. Despite his popularity, Obama is not an intimidating figure, and so he can expect to be tested time and again.
"Meantime, on the main challenge -- the economy -- the criticism has begun to infect the mainstream media as well as the conservative wing."
Somewhat along those lines, Steven Thomma and David Lightman write for McClatchy Newspapers: "If he tries to do too much, some analysts say, he could end up a modern-day Jimmy Carter, blazing into town and throwing the kitchen sink at Congress, only to end his first year in office with a pile of broken plumbing."
And in Sunday's Washington Post Scott Wilson writes that Obama's talk about how he inherited a fiscal crisis is somehow risky and hypocritical because of his pledge to rise above partisan politics.
"Over the past month, Obama has reminded the public at every turn that he is facing problems 'inherited' from the Bush administration, using increasingly bracing language to describe the challenges his administration is up against. The 'deepening economic crisis' that the president described six days after taking office became 'a big mess' in remarks this month to graduating police cadets in Columbus, Ohio," Wilson writes.
"Obama's more frequent and acid reminders that former president George W. Bush left behind a trillion-dollar budget deficit, a 14-month recession and a broken financial system have come at the same time Republicans have ramped up criticism that the current president's policies are compounding the nation's economic problems.
"Obama had initially been content to leave partisan defense strategy to his proxies, but as the fiscal picture has continued to darken, he has appeared more willing to risk his image as a politician who is above petty partisanship to personally remind the public of Bush's legacy."
Repeat: "[F]or Obama, who built his candidacy on a promise to rise above Washington's divisive partisan traditions -- winning over many independent voters and moderate Republicans in the process -- blaming his predecessor holds special risks."
But Obama has governed since day one as the anti-Bush. He's made no secret at all that he sees his presidency as, at heart, all about fixing the mistakes of the Bush years and addressing the issues Bush overlooked.
And, anyway, is reminding people of how we got here -- especially if he's right -- really so partisan? Heck, he's not even telling the public anything it doesn't know already. After all, the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that an overwhelming 84 percent of Americans feel Obama inherited the current economic conditions.
Wilson's piece has elicited 2709 comments and counting. That's a lot of comments.
Liberal bloggers see it as a hit job. John Cole blogged: "I'm not sure how noting he inherited the mess is petty partisan politics, as it seems to me it is just plain fact. He also inherited two wars. Is it petty partisan politics to note that?" Jonathan Singer blogs for MyDD: "Reading through this article, you get the sense that The Post thinks that President Obama is making it up or something."
Conservatives rejoiced. Moe Lane wrote in the Red State blog: "Be grateful that the Washington Post is at least catching up to the rest of us."
So, finally, in light of all the pushback from establishment Washington, this news shouldn't come as a big surprise.
Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama will kick off an all-out grass-roots effort today urging Congress to pass his $3.55 trillion budget, activating the extensive campaign apparatus he built during his successful 2008 candidacy for the first time since taking office.
"The campaign, which will be run under the aegis of the Democratic National Committee, will rely heavily on the 13 million-strong e-mail list put together during the campaign and now under the control of Organizing for America (OFA), a group overseen by the DNC. Aides familiar with the plan said it is an unprecedented attempt to transfer the grass-roots energy built during the presidential campaign into an effort to sway Congress....
"David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager and is now an adviser to OFA,... said in a statement that it will call on supporters 'to help the President win the debate between those who marched in lockstep with the failed Bush economic policies and now have no new ideas versus the Obama agenda which will help us manage the short term economic crisis and puts us on the path to long term prosperity.'...
"Several people closely involved in this campaign's planning made it clear that they believe this is the moment Democrats have been waiting for since Obama's election -- the deployment of the volunteer army that helped catapult a freshman senator to the presidency."Cheney to U.S.: 'Stuff Happens'
By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 03/16/2009
In case you thought former vice president Dick Cheney's unhinged interview with Politico six weeks ago was an aberration, along comes more of the same.
Cheney again accused President Obama of making the nation less safe -- without providing a stitch of reliable evidence. He also ducked responsibility for the financial crisis his team left behind, declared victory in Iraq, and confirmed earlier reports that he found himself at odds with former president George W. Bush after failing to secure a pardon for his onetime chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
Cheney said that in rolling back some of the Bush administration's anti-terror tactics, Obama "is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack."
King then offered him the opportunity to back that statement up. "I want to give you a chance -- and take as much time as you want -- to prove it....I know some of this is classified intelligence, but now that you're out of government, to the degree that you can, tell the American people, because of those tactics, because of those, yes, sometimes extreme tactics, we stopped this."
Cheney's eventual reply: "John, I've seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs. It's still classified. I can't give you the details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them. The one that has been public was the potential attack coming out of Heathrow, when they were going to have several American planes with terrorists on board, with liquid explosives, and they were going to blow those planes up over the United States.
"Now, that was intercepted and stopped, partly because of those programs that we put in place."
But here's a shocker: What Cheney said isn't remotely true. The Heathrow liquid explosives plot isn't even one of the ones the Bush administration historically claimed credit for -- not that any of its claims actually held up under even modest scrutiny.
Indeed, the Heathrow plot -- in which British prosecutors presented no evidence that a viable bomb had been made, that any airline tickets had been bought or that any attack was imminent -- was undone by a British investigation. And the only U.S. role I know of was that, once U.S. officials heard about what the Brits had found out, they messed it all up.
On the disastrous budget picture left behind, Cheney had this to say: "Eight months after we arrived, we had 9/11. We had 3,000 Americans killed one morning by al Qaeda terrorists here in the United States. We immediately had to go into the wartime mode. We ended up with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of that is still very active. We had major problems with respect to things like Katrina, for example. All of these things required us to spend money that we had not originally planned to spend, or weren't originally part of the budget.
"Stuff happens. And the administration has to be able to respond to that, and we did."
Did you get that? We "ended up" with two wars. And: "Stuff happens."
As for Iraq, Cheney said: "I guess my general sense of where we are with respect to Iraq and at the end of now, what, nearly six years, is that we've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do....
"The defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, the writing of that democratic constitution, a series of elections that involve power sharing among all the various groups, the end of sectarian violence. I think a major defeat for the Iranians living next door to Iraq, who tried to influence events there."
Do please keep in mind that there was no al Qaeda in Iraq until after the invasion; that the al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has regrouped in Afghanistan and Pakistan; that sectarian violence is arguably just in a lull; and that Iraq is virtually an Iranian client state.
So, were his arguments with Bush about Libby angry? Tense? Was there shouting? "Those kinds of details, I think, are best left to history. Maybe I'll write about it in my book," Cheney said. "I was clearly not happy that we, in effect, left Scooter sort of hanging in the wind, which I didn't think was appropriate. I think he's an innocent man who deserves a pardon."Quick Takes
By Dan Froomkin
11:00 AM ET, 03/16/2009
Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama's agenda. The administration's sharp rebuke of the American International Group on Sunday for handing out $165 million in executive bonuses — Lawrence H. Summers, director of the president's National Economic Council, described it as 'outrageous' on 'This Week' on ABC — marks the latest effort by the White House to distance itself from abuses that could feed potentially disruptive public anger.... A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style... will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional."
Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich writes for Talking Points Memo: "This sordid story of government helplessness in the face of massive taxpayer commitments illustrates better than anything to date why the government should take over any institution that's 'too big to fail' and which has cost taxpayers dearly."
Daniel Gross writes for Newsweek: "Investment professionals and econo-pundits claiming to speak for Wall Street have been blaming President Obama for the recent run of losses in the stock market...Talk about misplaced anger. Wall Street built a wooden house, stuffed it with flammable material, set it on fire and then poured gasoline on the blaze. And now it's blaming the inferno on the arson inspector, who wasn't appointed until after the fire had reached three-alarm status?"
John Harwood writes in the New York Times that there is a way for Obama to achieve "his huge health care and energy goals" without "begging, pleading and negotiating for help from Republicans....Here is how: Congressional Democrats pursue Mr. Obama's agenda under the arcane rules of 'budget reconciliation.'" In that way, his policies "could pass Congress this year by a simple majority vote — in a single budget bill with historic health and energy policy changes that Republicans could not filibuster."
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama accused the Bush administration [Saturday] of creating a 'hazard to public health' by failing to curb food contamination problems, and he announced new leadership and other changes aimed at modernizing food-safety laws....'There are certain things only a government can do,' Obama said. 'And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and do not cause us harm.' The announcements signaled another shift from the policies of President George W. Bush, whom Democrats accused of ignoring a worsening food-safety problem and politicizing the work of the FDA. The changes also follow outbreaks of illness from pathogens in food, including peanut products contaminated with salmonella that have killed nine and sickened more than 700 in recent months."
James Traub writes in the New York Times Magazine about the Bush library-and-institute project at Southern Methodist University: "To critics, then, the institute sounds like a walled preserve within which the strange ideological growths of the Bush era will proliferate — with S.M.U.'s good name affording them intellectual legitimacy. 'You can be sure that there will be a book on the privatization of Social Security,' predicts Thomas Knock, a professor of American history, 'or on creationism, or on the doctrine of pre-emptive war.' He and others are half-convinced that Bush will appoint his friend Karl Rove as the first executive director."
Hans Nichols and Jonathan D. Salant write for Bloomberg: "President Barack Obama will headline the first fundraiser of his presidency this month, appealing to donors large and small even as the economy struggles through the worst recession in generations. Obama's appearance at the Democratic National Committee's March 25 event at the Warner Theatre in Washington, with tickets ranging from $100 to $2,500 per person, will be an early test of his ability to keep up the record-breaking fundraising he achieved during the campaign."
Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The Middle East press has questioned President Obama's authority over Arab-Israeli issues since Charles W. Freeman Jr.'s withdrawal from his appointment to a senior intelligence position."
Robert Dreyfuss interviews Freeman for the Nation. Says Freeman: "Basically what Denny Blair wanted was a broadly experienced iconoclast, which some people says fits me as a description. And somebody who wasn't afraid to tell it like he saw it, or to ask people writing things for him why he's so sure about X, Y, or Z. Do they know that because everybody knows it, or do they have some evidence? And one could argue that is fairly critical in a number of contexts." For the Israeli lobby to push him out based on his insufficiently supportive views, he says, "was a nice way of, as the Chinese say, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys."
Michael A. Fletcher profiles Valerie Jarrett for The Washington Post: "Jarrett, 52, serves as senior adviser to the president, and she oversees the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. She is the principal contact for groups wanting to reach the White House....She also recommends and interviews people for top jobs in the administration, is a daily presence in the president's senior staff meetings, and is someone Obama often calls on for a reality check. But Jarrett's array of titles and duties fail to convey the breadth of her influence, which is rooted in a long relationship built on a foundation of trust with the Obamas."
Mark Leibovich writes in the New York Times: "While there has always been a hearty appetite for stories — and trivia — about the people in a new administration, today's White House press corps (competing for up-to-the-second news) has elevated the most banal doings to a coveted 'get.'"Cartoon Watch
By Dan Froomkin
9:17 AM ET, 03/16/2009
Tom Toles on the GOP's brilliant strategy, Ann Telnaes on Cheney's "stuff happens" defense, Daryl Cagle on Obama's attempts to lift the economy, Jim Morin on Treasury's staffing problems and Lisa Benson on Obama pointing to the bleachers.