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.'"