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Separating Truths From Lies

By Dan Froomkin
12:45 PM ET, 04/20/2009

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 NiemanWatchdog.org, 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.

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