Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:40 PM ET, 05/12/2009

Catching you up on the torture beat:

R. Jeffrey Smith wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that Senate intelligence committee investigators are looking into whether CIA interrogators working in secret prisons exceeded their instructions from the Justice Department. "The issue has attracted scrutiny because of President Obama's statement April 22 that those involved would be immune from prosecution if they 'carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House,'" Smith writes.

Smith discloses the existence of "a classified 2005 study by the [CIA]'s lawyers of dozens of interrogation videotapes." The study, "which the Senate intelligence committee demanded to see in 2005 but did not receive until last year, assessed the legality of interrogations that occurred between April and December 2002. Its conclusions have not been disclosed, and the CIA destroyed the videotapes in late 2005."

That certainly sounds interesting.

And Smith also reports on what could be another explosive document release: "Government officials familiar with the CIA's early interrogations say the most powerful evidence of apparent excesses is contained in the 'top secret' May 7, 2004, inspector general report, based on more than 100 interviews, a review of the videotapes and 38,000 pages of documents. The full report remains closely held, although White House officials have told political allies that they intend to declassify it for public release when the debate quiets over last month's release of the Justice Department's interrogation memos.

"According to excerpts included in those memos, the inspector general's report concluded that interrogators initially used harsh techniques against some detainees who were not withholding information. Officials familiar with its contents said it also concluded that some of the techniques appeared to violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by the United States in 1994.

"Although some useful information was produced, the report concluded that 'it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks,' according to the Justice Department's declassified summary of it."

In other words, as Greg Sargent blogs for Whorunsgov.com, the report "found no proof that torture foiled any terror plots on American soil — directly contradicting [former vice president Dick] Cheney’s claims."

Speaking of Cheney, Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column today: "Can't we send Dick Cheney back to Wyoming?...

"For the final act of his too-long public career, Cheney seems to have decided to become an Old Faithful of self-serving nonsense."

But Cheney's got at least one potential buyer -- right there next to Robinson on the op-ed page, where Richard Cohen pens some link-bait headlined "What if Cheney's Right?" He writes: "If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, this could be Cheney's time."

Robinson chatted with Liz Cheney about torture this morning on MSNBC.

In other news, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi -- whose torture-induced confession fueled Bush's propaganda campaign for war in Iraq, is dead.

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "A former CIA high-value detainee, who provided bogus information that was cited by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, has died in a Libyan prison, an apparent suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper....

"In their book 'Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War,' Michael Isikoff and David Corn said Libi made up the story about Iraqi training after he was beaten and subjected to a 'mock burial' by his Egyptian interrogators, who put him in a cramped box for 17 hours. Libi recanted the story after being returned to CIA custody in 2004.

"When President George W. Bush ordered the 2006 transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of high-value detainees previously held in CIA custody, Libi was pointedly missing. Human rights groups had long suspected that Libi was instead transferred to Libya, but the CIA had never confirmed where he was sent.

"'I would speculate that he was missing because he was such an embarrassment to the Bush administration,' said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. 'He was Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war.'"

I wrote on April 7 that the International Red Cross report on the CIA's black sites, based on interviews with the 14 "high value" detainees transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006, also expressed "grave concerns" about what happened to all the other detainees who passed through the secret CIA prisons who we still don't know about. Libi was one of them.

Torture memo author John Yoo has a new gig. He writes in his new Philadelphia Inquirer opinion column on Sunday that empathy has no place in a Supreme Court Justice.

Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch is outraged at the Inquirer. He writes that "while promoting public discourse is a goal of newspaper commentary, it should not be the main objective. The higher calling for an American newspaper should be promoting and maintaining our sometimes fragile democracy, the very thing that Yoo and his band of torture advocates very nearly shredded in a few short years. Quite simply, by handing Yoo a regularly scheduled platform for his viewpoint, the Inquirer is telling its readers that Yoo's ideas -- especially that torture is not a crime against the very essence of America -- are acceptable."

But wait. According to former Democratic representative Harold Ford, who now makes his living as a "centrist" pundit, maybe torture's not so bad. Here he is yesterday on MSBNC's Hardball: "I think if you ask the majority of Americans if they were opposed to the water boarding of some of these high-level terrorists or those who orchestrated terrorist attacks, I think you would be hard-pressed to find many Americans, many Democrats even, who would be that outraged by it."

(Reality check: Recent polls show that, even in the absurd ticking time-bomb scenario, the public is at best evenly split on the issue. And I assure you many of us are more than outraged.)

When Ford started talking about opportunities "to gain information that would prevent the destruction of an American city," even host Chris Matthews shot back: "That's Cheney talk."

Manu Raju writes for Politico: "For Democrats pushing an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing in the war on terrorism, the GOP now has a two-word response: Nancy Pelosi.

"Republicans say new revelations about a CIA briefing Pelosi received in 2002 have given them their best shot yet at blocking a sprawling probe into Bush administration interrogation techniques by allowing them to insist that its targets would include the speaker of the House."

But John Nichols writes for the Nation that reports that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were at least somewhat aware of Bush's torture regime are not new -- and simply add to the arguments on behalf of a "comprehensive inquiry into potentially criminal abuses of power." Nichols writes: "Pelosi should agree to testify, thoroughly, cooperatively and under oath. George Bush, Dick Cheney and all of their aides and lawyers should be expected to do the same."

And Eric Alterman writes for the Nation: "More than eighty years ago, in his argument with Walter Lippmann about the proper role of the press in a democracy, John Dewey warned that 'a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge.'

"It would be difficult to imagine a more telling--and disturbing--manifestation of Dewey's prediction than the current torture debate in Washington. Even after the disgraceful performance of so many armchair warriors during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, who would have dared predict the willingness, nay, eagerness, of respected journalists and pundits to argue in favor of purposeful ignorance?"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company