Friday, May 15, 2009

On torture, necessity ever more apparent for impartial probe

by Jay Bookman
May 15, 2009

President Obama has decided to oppose the release of photographic evidence of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops, reversing an earlier pledge to make the photos public. I can’t say I support the decision, but it’s certainly easier to swallow coming from an administration that acknowledges the abuse occurred and was more widespread than we want to admit.

That’s a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which tried to deny or minimize such abuse even while sitting on evidence that proved otherwise. Among other things, the photos demonstrate what happens when military discipline breaks down — once abuse is officially tolerated under some circumstances, it become much harder to prevent its “migration” into other situations. They also demonstrate why the nation needs a nonpartisan commission to look into the full impact of the decision to strip prisoners of all legal protection.

In another torture-related development, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the longtime chief of staff to Colin Powell, makes an interesting point about Dick Cheney. According to Cheney, Obama has endangered national security by outlawing torture as an interrogation technique (actually, federal law made torture illegal a long time ago, but we’ll let that slide for the moment.)

Here’s what Wilkerson points out:

“My investigations have revealed to me — vividly and clearly — that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering “the Cheney methods of interrogation”, simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.

What I am saying is that no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009. So, if we are to believe the protestations of Dick Cheney, that Obama’s having shut down the “Cheney interrogation methods” will endanger the nation, what are we to say to Dick Cheney for having endangered the nation for the last four years of his vice presidency?”

Great question, Col. Wilkerson.

However, Wilkerson goes on to make an even more startling claim: The Bush administration approved and pushed torture soon after 9/11 mainly to get justification for invading Iraq. Cheney in particular was insisting that interrogators deliver confirming evidence of a link between al Qaida and Iraq, one of his personal pet theories:

“So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.”

That claim by Wilkerson follows a story broken initially last month by the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. According to Jonathan S. Landay:

“A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the 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.”

“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.

“Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.”

Senior administration officials, however, “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information,” he said.

It’s hard to know how much truth there is in that. Personally, I can’t buy a claim that explosive without seeing more proof. And again, that’s something an impartial panel ought to explore. Without such an investigation, we’re going to hear a lot of wild rumors and allegations from all sides for years to come, with no means to ascertain the truth or exonerate the innocent.

Which brings us to the rather remarkable matter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi essentially accusing the CIA of lying about how much they told her and when about the use of “enhanced interrogation.” Other top Democrats are also refuting CIA claims that they were told about techiques such as waterboarding.

It is entirely plausible that Pelosi and others are attempting to cover up what they knew. It is also entirely plausible that the CIA is trying to “spread the blame” for what occurred. Without an impartial, noncongressional investigation, we’ll never know the truth. And the truth on this matter is important.

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