By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 04/27/2009
The arguments for a greater public understanding of the Bush administration's torture policies get stronger all the time, even as the arguments for moving forward in a state of willful blindness become more and more clearly a refuge for the complicit and their enablers.
So have we reached critical mass? As Mark Danner points out in a Washington Post opinion piece on Sunday, we've actually known for five years that the Bush administration had used waterboarding on terror suspects. But terrified Democratic leaders weren't interested in setting up a national security showdown with President Bush, even once they achieved the majority in both houses of Congress.
Now, a seemingly endless and horrifying series of revelations has unleashed an intense public reaction -- while at the same time calling attention to all that we still don't know. And with Barack Obama as president -- despite his own reluctance to "look backward," as he puts it -- serious inquiry into what happened seems a distinct possibility.
There is an obvious partisan aspect to the current debate, as Republican leaders have fallen in lockstep behind the former Bush officials defending torture as legal and necessary. But it doesn't need to be that way. And I suspect that as we learn more -- and as the defense of clearly repugnant and illegal acts becomes more of a political loser -- Republicans will choose not to allow Bush-era torture to define their party.
That would leave a motley -- and yet still consequential -- alliance of the directly and indirectly culpable as the final defenders of torture know-nothingism. That group includes not only former administration officials and members of the intelligence community, but the political and media leaders -- Republican and Democrat alike -- who chose acquiescence over outrage and were a key part of keeping the torturers' secrets for so long.
Danner writes in his opinion piece about the many paradoxes of the torture scandal, chief among them being "that it is not about things we didn't know but about things we did know and did nothing about.... [A]sk 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...
"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."
Who is still against some form of investigation? The right wing, at least for now. The
Washington Times editorial board writes: "There is little doubt that the ultimate target of such investigations would be former President Bush, who some in the far left of the Democratic Party consider to be a war criminal deserving prosecution...
"There is no value in pursuing any of these tribunals, which would quickly take on the theatrical attributes of show trials. They would be a gift to America's enemies who have fought for years to delegitimize our conduct of the war on terrorism, and they represent a distinct danger to a polity already riven by deep distrust."
And some elements of the Washington establishment oppose investigation as well. David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "If ever there were a time for President Obama to trust his instincts and stick to his guns, that time is now, when he is being pressured to change his mind about closing the books on the 'torture' policies of the past.
"Obama, to his credit, has ended one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States.
"He was right to do this. But he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government...
"Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?
"That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice."
But Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "What Broder states today as fact (that the Bush presidency is 'one of the darkest chapters of American history') is almost verbatim that which, when it mattered, when it was happening, he vehemently and repeatedly denied...
"This is a crucial and oft-overlooked fact in the debate over whether we should investigate and prosecute Bush crimes. The very same pundits and establishment journalists who today are demanding that we forget all about it, not look back, not hold anyone accountable, are the very same people who -- like Broder -- played key roles in hiding, enabling and defending these crimes."
Hilzoy blogs for the Washington Monthly: "When people talk about 'criminalizing policy differences', there's a crucial, question-begging assumption, namely: that no one actually broke the law....
"If we care about the rule of law, and about the idea that ours is a country of laws, not of men, then we should investigate those who break the laws, especially when they hold high office. The Presidency is a public trust, not a license for criminality."
Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column that some opponents of a further investigation "would rather not revisit those years because they don't want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.
"For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract 'confessions' that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.
"It's hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn't, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.
"Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws."
Here are some of the many voices increasingly calling for investigation of some form -- congressional, independent, or criminal.
Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The many roads of inquiry into the Bush administration's abusive 'interrogation techniques' all lead to one stubborn, inconvenient fact: Torture is not just immoral but also illegal. This means that once we learn the whole truth, the law will oblige us to act on it."
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "As we are learning by the day, the Bush administration contorted the Constitution and concocted preposterous legal theories to protect itself while it pursued its war on terror. Its many failings included cynicism, recklessness, distrust of the public and disregard for law and history. To reclaim our heritage and standing, the nation requires rejection of all of those. What is needed now are trust, candor, care and patience -- enduring American values temporarily forgotten at great cost."
The Detroit Free Press editorial board writes: "Civilized people everywhere are anxious to know how a nation that considers itself the world's foremost champion of human rights came to embrace torture techniques perfected in the prison camps of North Korea.
"It's surely in the United States' interest to satisfy their curiosity, notwithstanding President Barack Obama's concern that an official inquiry into torture abuses could devolve into a divisive witch hunt....
"What matters now is finding out how legal and constitutional mechanisms established to protect basic rights were subverted, and to make whatever repairs or improvements are necessary to show the world the ideals enshrined in our founding documents are more than empty slogans."
Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column: "President Obama worries that [a] commission will be a distraction, but the truth is the opposite. Revelations will continue to trickle out — including a new hoard of photos of abuses scheduled to be released by May 28 — creating a constant roar of charges and counter-charges. Liberals will jab Mr. Obama from the left, and Dick Cheney from the right, until the president resembles St. Sebastian (the human pincushion). Mr. Obama won't be able to escape torture."
Kristof writes that a commission "could help forge a consensus against torture, for almost everyone in the national security world believes that the result would be a ringing affirmation that we should not torture." And, he writes: "It's in Mr. Obama's interest to reach such a consensus, because otherwise the next major terror attack — and there will be one — will be followed by Republican claims that the president's wimpishness left America vulnerable. His agenda on health care, climate change and education will then risk a collapse into dream dust. The way to inoculate his agenda is to seek common ground through a nonpartisan commission."
Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column that "we still shrink from the hardest truths and the bigger picture."
And, (see my Wednesday post) Rich concludes that "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."
In the meantime, the drip-drip of disclosure continues. And it appears that willful blindness -- and/or enforced ignorance -- was a core principle of the Bush administration's torture decision-makers.
Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
"The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency's inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked....
"'Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques -- enhanced or otherwise -- to see what resulted in the best information,' said a senior U.S. intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program....
"Former Bush administration officials said the failure to conduct such an examination was part of a broader reluctance to reassess decisions made shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks."
Peter Finn and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post: "The military agency that provided advice on harsh interrogation techniques for use against terrorism suspects referred to the application of extreme duress as 'torture' in a July 2002 document sent to the Pentagon's chief lawyer and warned that it would produce 'unreliable information.'"
But: "A former administration official said the National Security Council, which was briefed repeatedly that summer on the CIA's planned interrogation program by George J. Tenet, then director of central intelligence, and agency lawyers, did not discuss the issues raised in the attachment."
Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Some former Bush officials argue that they were not properly warned by CIA officials about the potential perils of the severe methods, while others insist there were explicit cautions."
At particular issue is "a crucial May 2002 meeting that paved the way for use of waterboarding on a suspected al-Qaida leader....
"A former senior Bush administration official familiar with the deliberations told The Associated Press that during [that] meeting..., then-CIA director George Tenet, backed by agency lawyers and CIA officers, reassured former NSC director Condoleezza Rice, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and others that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were both safe and necessary.
"The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's continuing sensitivity, said Tenet and other CIA officials did not mention the techniques' potential legal and physical dangers....
"But a former senior intelligence official also aware of the internal 2002 discussions disputed that account. He dismissed the charge that Tenet had presented the harsh methods to the NSC as the only possible option. The intelligence official, who also spoke with anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the CIA had insisted on having the program legally reviewed to be sure it comported both with U.S. law and policy."
And former CIA director Porter J. Goss writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "In the fall of 2002, while I was chairman of the House intelligence committee, senior members of Congress were briefed on the CIA's 'High Value Terrorist Program,' including the development of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and what those techniques were. This was not a one-time briefing but an ongoing subject with lots of back and forth between those members and the briefers.
"Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as 'waterboarding' were never mentioned."
Was torture the only way to get 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk?
Joby Warrick and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post about how that "may never be conclusively known, in large part because the CIA appears not to have tried traditional tactics for much time, if at all. According to the agency's own accounting, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during his first four weeks in a CIA secret prison."
They also note: "It is unclear from unclassified reports whether the information gained was critical in foiling actual plots."
And, yes, counterterrorism officials said Mohammed and another tortured suspect "provided critical information about senior al-Qaeda figures and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members, associates and financial backers....
"But the government's justification for the CIA program hinged on the need to break up imminent terrorist threats, not the mapping of strategic intelligence, which can take weeks and months."
And Warrick and Finn also point out: "Other officials, including former high-ranking members of the Bush administration, argue that judging the program by whether it yielded information misses the point."
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Time's Bobby Ghosh have more about Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent and author of a New York Times op-ed that, as I wrote on Thursday, persuasively and memorably rebuts the misinformation being spread by those complicit in torture.
Finally, don't be too swayed by the recent opinion polls that ostensibly show that the public is divided on torture and further investigation. I've previously mentioned a February USA Today/Gallup Poll, which showed that nearly two thirds of Americans support an investigation into Bush-era detainee policy – although they are split on whether it should be conducted by an independent panel or by federal prosecutors.
Pew reports: "Amid intense debate over the use of torture against suspected terrorists... nearly half say the use of torture under such circumstances is often (15%) or sometimes (34%) justified; about the same proportion believes that the torture of suspected terrorists is rarely (22%) or never (25%) justified."
But the Pew pollsters granted torture advocates a good chunk of their argument in the phrasing of their question. The question they asked was not whether torture is justified, but whether "torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists is justified." Not surprisingly, in this age of "24", the ticking time bomb scenario does give people pause. But as should be increasingly clear, in the real world things don't work that way -- and interrogation experts maintain that in all realistic situations, traditional methods actually work better.
One Post question poses the "24" question, again without sufficient context, asking "do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?" On that one, the public is split evenly.
And the Post question about investigations is phrased in unnecessarily partisan terms and is too limiting in its scope: "Do you think the Obama administration should or should not investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism suspects were treated under the Bush administration?" The question shouldn't be about the "Obama administration" investigating Bush, but about whether there ought to be a criminal, congressional, or independent investigation of some sort. (And even with the current phrasing, by the way, 51 percent are in favor.)