Torturing for Propaganda Purposes

By Dan Froomkin
1:25 PM ET, 04/22/2009

Despite what you've seen on TV, torture is really only good at one thing: eliciting false confessions. Indeed, Bush-era torture techniques, we now know, were cold-bloodedly modeled after methods used by Chinese Communists to extract confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War.

So as shocking as the latest revelation in a new Senate Armed Services Committee report may be, it actually makes sense -- in a nauseating way. The White House started pushing the use of torture not when faced with a "ticking time bomb" scenario from terrorists, but when officials in 2002 were desperately casting about for ways to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks -- in order to strengthen their public case for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 at all.

The new report includes testimony from an Army psychologist at Guantanamo Bay who described increasingly relentless pressure from Washington in the summer of 2002 to use harsher methods on detainees. "[T]his is my opinion, even though they were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq," Army Maj. Paul Burney told investigators. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link...there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

Does this sound over the top? Well, the idea that Bush White House would enthusiastically welcome information connecting Iraq and 9/11 obtained through torture is anything but hypothetical.

We learned four years ago that a confession extracted under torture by Egyptian authorities from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured terror suspect who had been rendered to Egypt by the CIA, was the sole source for arguments Bush made in a key pre-Iraq war speech in October 2002. "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," Bush said, uttering torture-inspired fiction. The same statements also provided a critical part of then-secretary of state Colin Powell's famous presentation to the United Nations, a month before the invasion.

The report also makes it clear that the decision to adopt techniques nearly universally acknowledged to be torture was made much earlier -- and in a much more calculated manner -- than the Bush administration led the public to believe.

The Armed Services Committee actually released the executive summary of this report last December. It concluded that the Bush administration's consistent blaming of the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere on "a few bad apples" was in fact a pack of lies. (See my December 12 column, Pack of Liars.) Instead, the committee found: "The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

The report pointed an accusing finger specifically at Bush, for opening the door with his Feb. 7, 2002, memo exempting war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions.

And it documented how the Bush torture techniques were reverse-engineered from a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, intended to help soldiers resist the kinds of brutal interrogations used by the Chinese during the Korean War.

What's new in the expanded report released last night is a lot more detail about that perverse emulation of our enemies' worst behavior, as well as examples of how authorities ignored dissenters who warned that the techniques were illegal and counterproductive. And then there's the whole Iraq-propaganda angle.

Gordon Trowbridge writes for the Detroit News: "Senior Bush administration officials pushed for the use of abusive interrogations of terrorism detainees in part to seek evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq, according to newly declassified information discovered in a congressional probe.

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

"Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime."

Landay supplements the Senate investigation with his own reporting: "A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that intelligence agencies and interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"'There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,' the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"'The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.'"

Joby Warrick and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post: "Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods -- and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded."

The report also "documents multiple warnings -- from legal and trained interrogation experts -- that the techniques could backfire and might violate U.S. and international law.

"One Army lieutenant colonel who reviewed the program warned in 2002 that coercion 'usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain,' according to the Senate report. A second official, briefed on plans to use aggressive techniques on detainees, was quoted the same year as asking: 'Wouldn't that be illegal?'

"Once they were accepted, the methods became the basis for harsh interrogations not only in CIA secret prisons, but also in Defense Department internment camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report said."

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "In the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the Bush administration sought to construct a 'new paradigm' for dealing with enemy prisoners, in the words of former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who later served as attorney general.

"Even before the attacks, several of the lawyers working for the administration of former President George W. Bush had expressed strong views on issues such as the scope of presidential authority and the limits that international treaties place on U.S. actions."

The New York Times, in a story based on interviews with more than two dozen anonymous current and former senior officials, concludes that the top administration officials who approved torture tactics simply didn't understand their history, or that they didn't work.

Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti write: "In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

"This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

"According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans....

"The process was 'a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,' a former C.I.A. official said."

Mark Benjamin writes for Salon that the report "torpedoes the notion that the administration only chose torture as a last resort."

Noting that Obama has ruled out prosecution of CIA officers who followed Justice Department guidelines, Jane Mayer blogs for the New Yorker that the new Senate report "raises questions about whether the C.I.A. was always operating with legal authorization.

"Take, for instance, the torment of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, the guinea pig for the C.I.A.’s most abusive interrogation techniques, who was critically injured in a gunfight and captured on March 28, 2002. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel authorized harrowing tactics for interrogating Zubaydah in the infamous 'Bybee Torture Memo' of August 1, 2002, which Obama released publicly last week. So, presumably, whatever happened to Zubaydah after August is indemnified by the Obama invisibility cloak. But what about what happened to Zubaydah in the four months before?...

"By June 2002—again, months before the Department of Justice gave the legal green light for interrogations—an F.B.I. special agent on the scene of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah refused to participate in what he called 'borderline torture,' according to a D.O.J. investigation cited in the Levin report....

"What did the F.B.I. see in the spring of 2002? And exactly who was involved? How high up was this activity authorized? Is it off-limits for criminal investigation?"

Blogger Marcy Wheeler suspects that the pressure from Cheney's office to link Iraq and 9/11 was one of the reasons Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got waterboarded 183 times and Abu Zubaydah got waterboarded 83 times. One of the four torture memos released last week noted that there were some sessions of waterboarding ordered from Washington that, as Wheeler puts it, "even the torturers considered excessive."

Yesterday was a big news day for torture. As I reported in this post, in a move sure to accelerate the push for a wide-ranging investigation of Bush administration misdeeds, President Obama yesterday said he is not opposed to some sort of "further accounting of what took place during this period," and said the prosecution of people high in the torture chain of command would be up to the Justice Department.

Sam Stein writes for Huffington Post about the media's focus on Obama's perceived reversal, rather than on the central issue. The media has been "focused almost exclusively on two specific angles: had Obama cowered to those liberal proponents of prosecuting Bush officials, and had he contradicted his own administration in expressing openness in doing so?

"In the process, the issue of launching an investigation -- which would have to be bipartisan in nature for Obama to support it -- was reduced into an overtly partisan and cynical frame. Issues of justice and morality boiled down into 'the left's' influence compared to 'the right.'"

Scott Horton blogs for the Daily Beast: "Members of the White House press corps struggled to explain the shift, many of them suggesting that Obama was pandering to his political base. But the winds of change blew in from an address just down Pennsylvania Avenue."

Horton writes that senior Justice Department lawyers were "incensed" at statements from top White House aides indicating that all prosecutions were off the table, "not because they disagreed with Obama’s apparent opposition to an investigation and prosecution, but because the statements violated well-established rules separating political figures in the White House from decisions about active criminal cases. The statements were viewed as a frontal assault on the autonomy and independence of the criminal-justice system....

"Now the White House misstep may in fact be propelling the process in the opposite direction. Another Justice Department official observed, 'The department is now in the process of making some very tough decisions about what to do with this extremely complex and difficult matter.... The only clear way out of this bind may now be to do what the critics suggest and appoint a special prosecutor.'"

I also wrote yesterday about Cheney's continued insistence that the tactics he still refuses to call torture worked.

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times that "President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

"'High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,' Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday."

That memo to the intelligence community was actually posted last week on the blog of the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent organization.

As I pointed out yesterday, I'm sure there are plenty of CYA memos from members of the intelligence community that assert the value of those techniques, but that doesn't make them accurate.

And Blair made a very important point in a statement issued last night: "[T]here is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means." And, he wrote: "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "U.S. counterterrorism officials are reacting angrily to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that waterboarding 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times was a 'success' that produced actionable intelligence.

"'Cheney is full of crap,' one intelligence source with decades of experience said Tuesday.

"Another retired counterterrorism official who read reports when they arrived in Washington detailing the confessions of Mohammed, known as 'KSM,' said most of the information he coughed up during the waterboarding sessions involved things he thought his CIA-contract interrogators already knew, or were just his ideas for mayhem.

"'Most of the (cables) were reports of actions that KSM was only remotely thinking of undertaking - they didn't even reach the planning stage,' the retired counterterrorism official said. 'So it's a bit of a stretch for Bush administration officials to say these were attacks they had disrupted.'"

At Slate, Timothy Noah takes apart the assertion that KSM's torture resulted in the breaking up of a plot to fly a plane into a Los Angeles skyscraper. He looks at various administration statements and asks, "How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration 'broke up' that attack during the previous year?"

Dafna Linzer writes for ProPublica that at least three dozen people who were held in the CIA's secret prisons overseas appear to be missing. She has a list. For context, see my April 7 post, How Many Others Were Tortured?

And Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post: "European prosecutors are likely to investigate CIA and Bush administration officials on suspicion of violating an international ban on torture if they are not held legally accountable at home, according to U.N. officials and human rights lawyers."

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