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Call Cheney's Bluff

By Dan Froomkin
12:30 PM ET, 04/21/2009


Cheney on Fox News last night.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, widely suspected to have been the prime mover behind the Bush administration's adoption of torture as an interrogation technique, last night dared President Obama to release more memos, these ostensibly chronicling the "success of the effort."

Obama last week released four deeply disturbing documents, in which government lawyers attempted to justify, in chilling detail, flatly unconscionable and illegal acts such as waterboarding, slamming detainees against a wall, and stuffing a prisoner with a fear of insects into a small box with a bug.

"There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified," Cheney shot back last night in an interview on Fox News with Sean Hannity. "I formally asked that they be declassified now....If we're going to have this debate, you know, let's have an honest debate."

Please, Mr. President, call Cheney's bluff. But don't stop there. Also urge people involved in or knowledgeable about the interrogations to speak publicly about what happened. And encourage the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold its planned hearings on the subject promptly and in public.

Because, while Cheney is not entirely bluffing -- the fact is that there are inevitably a host of cover-your-ass memos that went up and down the chain of command, attempting to justify the unjustifiable -- the Bush administration has already made its best argument that torture made America safer. They've already given it their best shot, declassifying plenty of information to do so. And their claims fall apart under even modest scrutiny.

For Cheney to portray himself as the victim of secrecy is more than laughable. His signature modus operandi was for Bush aides to selectively leak or declassify secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would discredit them.

So time and time again, when it was politically necessary, the Bush White House declassified material ostensibly related to terrorist plots thwarted by heroic means.

Back on October 6, 2005, for instance, to back up a speech he was making in an attempt to rally support for the war in Iraq, Bush declassified a "Fact Sheet" listing 10 terrorist plots he claimed had been disrupted by the United States.

But as Sara Kehaulani Goo wrote in The Washington Post at the time, the list was exaggerated at best: "The president made it 'sound like well-hatched plans,' said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. 'I don't think they fall into that category.'"

In a February 2006 speech, responding to pressure to justify his warrantless domestic spying program, Bush suddenly went into more detail about one alleged plot, this one to crash a hijacked commercial airliner into the Library Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles.

At that point, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.'

And in September 2006, partly in response to The Washington Post's disclosure of a network of secret CIA prisons around the world, and partly as a political gambit during the mid-term election campaigns, Bush delivered another speech. In this one, he described what he called an "alternative set of procedures" used by the CIA on key detainees, and went into great length about the valuable information he said Abu Zubaida -- the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House -- had provided as a result.

That same day, the Director of National Intelligence obligingly declassified a Summary of the High Value Terrorist Detainee Program.

But as I've written at length before -- see my March 30 post, Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked -- many of Bush's assertions have been repeatedly contradicted by investigative reporting.

And as Jane Mayer wrote in her book The Dark Side, "whatever their motives, it appears the President and the Director of Central Intelligence gave the public misleadingly exaggerated accounts of the effectiveness of the abuse they authorized. Some might impute dishonest motives to them. But it seems more likely that they fooled not just the public, but also themselves."

Very much along the lines of Cheney's argument, former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen returns to the Washington Post op-ed page this morning with more circular arguments, citing unsupported justifications written by torturers and their enablers as irrefutable proof of the value of what they did.

Thiessen writes that one of the memos released last week notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.'...In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques."

But quoting the CIA's belief doesn't really settle anything. And much of what Thiessen writes today is basically a repeat of his January 22 Post op-ed (itself a repeat of Bush's September 2006 speech) which I debunked here.

For instance, Thiessen writes: "Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques 'led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the "Second Wave," "to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into" a building in Los Angeles.'...The memo explains that 'information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the "Second Wave."' In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York."

But remember, this is the same plot that some intelligence officials told The Post in 2006 may have never been more than just talk.

So, yes, by 2005, senior Justice Department and CIA officials were in full CYA mode -- trying to defend what they had done and tell the White House what it wanted to hear -- and they most assuredly generated a lot of paperwork to support their views. But that doesn't make what they said true.

And, indeed, when it comes to the detainee whose interrogation we know the most about -- Zubaida -- accounts from outside the complicit chain of command suggest the assertions that torture worked are nothing less than delusional. As I noted just yesterday, Scott Shane writes in Saturday's New York Times that Zubaida provided some valuable information -- but before the torture began. Shane quotes a former intelligence officer involved in the case as saying that after the torture began, Zubaida "pleaded for his life... But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give."

There is something crazy about arguing over whether torture works or not. After all, it really doesn't matter, if you believe that torture is never justified. But since at least early last year, the main defense of the Bush apologists has been to argue that the ends justified the means. And you can't just leave their assertions unaddressed.

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