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Did Torture Work?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 1:13 PM

In interviews yesterday and this morning, a former CIA agent called waterboarding what it is. Not "enhanced interrogation" or "harsh tactics." Simply: torture.

It's a notable achievement in the battle against the Orwellian doubletalk infesting the national discourse and the news coverage about this important issue.

John Kiriakou, who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded, also made clear that every decision leading to the torture of CIA detainees was documented and approved in cables to and from Washington. That's a step forward for accountability after two gigantic steps back last week, when it emerged that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of two of its torture sessions.

But Kiriakou, whose first interview was with Brian Ross of ABC News, also made the unsubstantiated claim that torture worked. Kiriakou told Ross yesterday that, as a result of waterboarding, suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah coughed up information that "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

Ross asked Kiriakou to say a bit more about those thwarted attacks: "Were they on US soil? Were they in Pakistan?"

Kiriakou replied: "You know, I was out of it by then. I had moved onto a new job. And I-- I don't recall. To the best of my recollection, no, they weren't on US soil. They were overseas."

But where's the evidence?

Like Kiriakou, Bush last year described Zubaydah as a senior terrorist leader who divulged crucial information under questioning.

But, as I wrote in Friday's column, Bush and the Torture Tapes, investigative reporter Ron Suskind has written that Zubaydah was a mentally ill minor functionary, and that most if not all of the information he provided to the CIA was either old news -- or entirely made up.

There are many reasons why Americans should be skeptical about assertions that terrorist attacks were thwarted as a result of what administration officials would call "enhanced interrogation." (I enumerated some of the reasons last month at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor.)

But it all boils down to the fact that, so far, no one from Bush on down has come up with a single documented example of American lives saved thanks to torture.

Kiriakou Speaks

Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said yesterday that the harsh technique provided an intelligence breakthrough that 'probably saved lives,' but that he now regards the tactic as torture.

Richard Esposito and Brian Ross report for ABC News: "Kiriakou said the feeling in the months after the 9/11 attacks was that interrogators did not have the time to delve into the agency's bag of other interrogation tricks. . . .

"At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. And as time has passed, and as September 11th has, you know, has moved farther and farther back into history, I think I've changed my mind," he told ABC News.

Here's the video of the interview, and parts one and two of the transcript.

Kiriakou described a considerable paper trail.

Kiriakou: "The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific. And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard. So it was extremely deliberate. . . . "

Ross raised the issue of false confessions -- but didn't confront Kiriakou with Suskind's reporting.

Ross: "Was there concern that-- the techniques would result in false confessions? He would just say something?"

Kiriakou: "Oh, there was always that concern."

Ross: "And how do you guard against that?"

Kiriakou: "Well, the only way that you really can at least partially guard against that is to not do these things regularly. That's why so few people were-- were water boarded. . . . [Y]ou really wanted it to be a last resort. Because we didn't want these false confessions. We didn't want wild goose chases. . . . "

Ross: "Was he ever caught in a lie?"

Kiriakou: "No."

Ross: "An exaggeration?"

Kiriakou: "No. And we-- we really ran down everything that he said. Obviously, there are other sources to-- to corroborate-- things. And this is one way that you're able to vet the people that you're speaking with. And to the best of my recollection, he never led us down the wrong path."

(By contrast, Suskind reported that Zubaydah "named countless targets inside the U.S. to stop the pain, all of them immaterial.")

Kiriakou's current view on waterboarding: "I think that-- water boarding is probably something that we shouldn't be in the business of doing."

Ross: "Why do you say that now?

Kiriakou: "Because we're Americans, and we're better than that."

Kiriakou told CBS News that he and at least one other CIA officer refused to use water boarding and the other newly authorized interrogation tactics. "That job, he said, was turned over to retired commandos under contract to the CIA."

Via Thinkprogress I see Kiriakou was on NBC's Today Show this morning with Matt Lauer. Lauer asked Kiriakou where the permission was given to carry out torture.

Lauer: "Was the White House involved in that decision?"

Kiriakou: "Absolutely. This isn't something done willy nilly. It's not something that an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner. This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and the Justice Department."

Lauer then played a clip from a September 2006 interview he did with Bush, in which the president said: "I told our people get information without torture, and was assured by our Justice Department that we were not torturing."

Kiriakou's response: "I disagree."

The Tapes: A White House Wink and a Nod?

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "Lawyers within the clandestine branch of the Central Intelligence Agency gave written approval in advance to the destruction in 2005 of hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting interrogations of two lieutenants from Al Qaeda, according to a former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode. . . .

"The former intelligence official acknowledged that there had been nearly two years of debate among government agencies about what to do with the tapes, and that lawyers within the White House and the Justice Department had in 2003 advised against a plan to destroy them. But the official said that C.I.A. officials had continued to press the White House for a firm decision, and that the C.I.A. was never given a direct order not to destroy the tapes.

"'They never told us, "Hell, no,"' he said. 'If somebody had said, "You cannot destroy them," we would not have destroyed them.'"

Meanwhile, over at the White House, it's stonewall time, with a familiar excuse. As

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "The White House typically stops commenting -- beyond broad talking points -- once an inquiry into a controversial matter is under way. When a reporter asked about another White House 'wall of silence,' Perino told the media in her morning briefing: 'I can see where that cynicism that usually drifts from this room could come up in this regard. What I can tell you is I try my best to get you as much information as I can.'"

From yesterday's briefing:

Q: "Can you comment on whether [then-deputy chief of staff, later White House counsel] Harriet Miers did, in fact, know about the CIA tapes and whether she told the CIA not to destroy them?"

Perino: "No. No. It's going to unfortunately be one of those briefings -- I'm not able to comment on anything regarding that, except for what I said on Friday -- which is now, and since then, the Justice Department and the CIA have started a preliminary inquiry. We are supportive of that. We are in the fact-gathering stage, and we are providing them information. So beyond that I am not able to comment or characterize."

Q: "Has the White House Counsel directed everybody here to preserve all the documents?"

Perino: "Yes."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With its admission last week that it destroyed taped interrogations of terror suspects, the CIA has raised questions about whether its penchant for secrecy has spilled over into illegal conduct, to the detriment of congressional investigators, private litigants, and the Sept. 11 panel.

"As a general matter, government agencies, like other institutions and individuals, are under a legal obligation to preserve relevant documents and information once it becomes apparent that they are of interest to official proceedings."

Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun: "With talk of a special prosecutor again in the air and the looming prospect of a Democrat taking over the White House, CIA officials involved in prisoner interrogations and the disputed handling of videotapes of those sessions may seek the only ironclad assurance against any criminal prosecution: a presidential pardon."

Here's a letter from Sens. Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter, the chair and ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, telegraphing some of the questions CIA Director Michael Hayden is likely to be asked in today's closed hearing:

"When and how did Department officials or attorneys first become aware of the existence of videotapes of detainee interrogations? Did Department officials or attorneys ever view the tapes? Did the Department evaluate the legality of the interrogation techniques used in the interrogations that were videotaped? When and how did Department officials or attorneys become aware of any plan to destroy videotapes of interrogations of detainees? Were Department officials or attorneys asked about the advisability or legality of destroying the tapes? Did Department officials or attorneys communicate views on the advisability or legality of destroying the tapes? When and how did Department officials or attorneys become aware that videotapes were destroyed? What communication has the Department had with the White House about the existence, plan to destroy, and destruction of the videotapes? With whom, how, and when were there any communications between the Department and the White House about these matters?"

Opinion Watch

John Barry writes for Newsweek: "We have taken refuge in euphemisms. 'Enhanced,' sometimes 'aggressive' interrogation techniques -- or, the latest offering of a CIA spokesman, 'special methods of questioning'--are, deliberately, verbal anesthetic. In the wake of the last great war to save civilization, George Orwell taught us to distrust euphemisms. Always and without exception, they are designed to dull us to the truth. Those CIA videos would have stripped anyone who saw them of that comfortable distancing -- confronted everyone who viewed them with the unimaginable reality of what the U.S. government has authorized in our name."

What would the videos have looked like? Barry writes: "[T]he torturers calmly pouring water over the cloth covering the victims' faces, the frenzied chest-heavings as the bodies went into shock, the gasping and retching as each session ended. More horrifying still would have been the actions, or inactions, of all those standing around. There must have been interrogators, and an interpreter. Certainly a doctor, watching the victims' vital signs on a monitor to gauge how long each session could last. This being America, there may have even been a lawyer on hand. All professionals, doing something unpleasant, but -- you understand -- necessary for the safety of the state."

Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick write in Slate about what would be different if the tapes hadn't been destroyed. They note that "the two biggest terror trials we've had since Sept. 11 were predicated on torture evidence that was then destroyed."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "An administration that defends waterboarding isn't capable of conducting an honest investigation into why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the torture sessions.

"The Justice Department and the CIA started preliminary inquiries Saturday, but Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.) is right: A special counsel is needed to investigate this potential obstruction of justice. The Bush administration is only too relieved those tapes won't be showing up on YouTube. . . .

"In the long debate over torture, the disappearance of these tapes is the strongest indication yet that the Bush administration knew its approved interrogation methods were illegal. Officials could draw up secretly legal justifications for these tactics, but they knew the court of public opinion and international law would never sanction them."

Budget Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A Democratic deal to give President Bush some war funding in exchange for additional domestic spending appeared to collapse last night after House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) accused Republicans of bargaining in bad faith.

"Instead, Obey said he will push a huge spending bill that would hew to the president's spending limit by stripping it of all lawmakers' pet projects, as well as most of the Bush administration's top priorities. It would also contain no money for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . .

"House Democratic leaders were scheduled to complete work last night on a $520 billion spending bill that included $11 billion in funding for domestic programs above the president's request, half of what Democrats had initially approved. The bill would have also contained $30 billion for the war in Afghanistan, upon which the Senate would have added billions more for Iraq before final congressional approval.

"But a stern veto threat this weekend from White House budget director Jim Nussle put the deal in jeopardy, and Obey said he is prepared for a long standoff with the White House. . . .

"Obey's proposal did not move the White House to negotiate, spokesman Tony Fratto said. 'Different day, different Democrat, different direction. Our position hasn't changed,' Fratto said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that Ed Gillespie is the driving force behind this confrontation.

"As the clock ticks toward a Congressional recess, with Democrats struggling to wrap 11 major spending bills into one and Mr. Bush threatening to veto the huge package, Republicans see the hand of Mr. Gillespie at work. As counselor to the president, a job he took in July, Mr. Gillespie is trying to write a new narrative for Mr. Bush, one that casts him in the role of fiscal conservative, sharpening the contrast between him and Democrats while repairing his tattered image with the Republican base.

"On Mr. Gillespie's watch, the president's speeches have grown shorter, his language punchier. When Mr. Bush threatens to veto a 'three-bill pileup' or likens Congress to 'a teenager with a new credit card,' Gillespie-watchers all over Washington say they can hear the new counselor's voice. . . .

"'He's a smart, shrewd operator,' said Representative Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Clinton during the 1995 budget fight. But while Mr. Emanuel said he has 'nothing but respect for Ed,' he argued that, after seven years of runaway Republican spending, even a master strategist like Mr. Gillespie will have trouble remaking Mr. Bush's image.

"'He's $4 trillion too late,' Mr. Emanuel said."

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times with the conventional wisdom: that "with the approach of a Friday deadline -- when a temporary funding resolution for the federal government expires -- it appears increasingly likely that congressional Democrats will once again have to give in to the White House."

Scooter Libby Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, dropped the appeal of his perjury conviction yesterday after concluding that it would be too costly and time-consuming to pursue the matter any further, his attorney announced."

The statement from Libby's lawyer "touched on the legal Catch-22 that Libby has found himself in: President Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence this summer but left in place his conviction in the CIA leak case. That means that even if Libby were to have won his appeal, he might still face a new trial that could result in prison time."

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The decision also reflects the political reality that if the appellate court granted a new trial, it would probably occur during the administration of the next president, who might not share Bush's interest in helping Libby."

Bush, after all, "could still pardon him, wiping out the conviction, before he leaves office.

As I wrote in yesterday's column, Moment of Reckoning, all the White House's excuses for not talking about the CIA leak investigation are moot now that the legal proceedings are over. But will we get any answers?

Here's Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball last night with some thoughts on that subject: "[A]ny reasonable person has to wonder about the extent to which the administration has acted to cover up the way it made and then defended its case for war with Iraq, why it allowed itself to be caught in criminality to do so. Ask yourself the following:

"Why did the chief of staff to the vice president obstruct the criminal investigation into the CIA leak case? Why did he so flagrantly lie under oath? Why did he, in the words of the prosecutor, throw sands in the eyes of the prosecutor?

"Why did he, Scooter Libby, refuse to testify when faced with 30 years of imprisonment? Why did the vice president not testify? Why did the president commute Mr. Libby's sentence, after having promised he would punish those who leaked? Why does the administration refuse to release to the Congress the interview Cheney and Bush had with the special prosecutor?

"Why did they insist on doing that interview together, like the Menendez brothers? Why did Libby just drop his appeal, which would have led to a second trial, where, again, he would have the opportunity to testify in his own defense?"

Climate Change Watch

Mary Jordan writes in The Washington Post: "Former vice president Al Gore, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize on Monday, called on the United States and China, the world's two largest polluters, 'to make the boldest moves' on climate change 'or stand accountable before history for their failure to act.' . . .

"In an interview before the ceremony, Gore criticized the Bush administration's stance on climate change. He said he believed the next U.S. president -- regardless of who it is -- would address the matter more urgently.

"'I think it is unfortunate that our nation, which should be the natural leader of the world community, has been the principal obstacle to progress in solving the climate crisis,' Gore said.

"Asked whether his life as the world's climate-change ambassador had turned out better than if he had become president, he said: 'I am under no illusion that there is any position with as much ability to influence the future than that of the president of the United States,' he said. 'But that was not to be.'"

Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House censored climate scientists and edited their testimony on global warming before Congress, Democrats charged Monday after a 16-month investigation into allegations of political interference with scientific inquiries.

"The Bush administration was 'particularly active in stifling discussions' of a potential link between climate change and the intensity of hurricanes, according to the findings in a draft report issued Monday by Democrats on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee."

Deborah Zabarenko writes for Reuters: "Congressional Republicans released their own report, calling the accusations 'a partisan diatribe,' while White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Democrats' charges were rehashed and untrue, and timed to coincide with the Bali conference."

The committee report states that "the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming. . . .

"In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed an internal 'Communications Action Plan' that stated: 'Victory will be achieved when . . . average citizens "understand" uncertainties in climate science . . . [and] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the "conventional wisdom."' The Bush Administration has acted as if the oil industry's communications plan were its mission statement."

Bush to Israel

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush told Jewish leaders on Monday he planned to visit Israel next month to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Participants in an annual White House meeting marking the Jewish festival of Hanukkah said Bush confirmed reports he would make his first trip to Israel in January since taking office. The President hosted a Middle East conference in November aimed at jump-starting stalled peace talks.

"Jewish leaders from the United States and other countries who met him on Monday said Bush did not say whether he would also go to the Palestinian territories. But a Palestinian official said on Saturday Bush would visit both Israel and the Palestinian areas January 9-11."

'Dead By Now'

Mary Ann Akers blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Some might view it as distasteful - Vice President Dick Cheney's office calls it 'outrageous' - but a nurses union is sticking by its eye-popping ad running in 10 different Iowa newspapers today. The ad features a cut-out newspaper article about Cheney's latest hospitalization for heart treatment with the boldface words: If he were anyone else, he'd probably be dead by now."

Settlement Watch

Shannon P. Duffy writes in the Legal Intelligencer: "On the eve of trial, Upper Darby Township, Pa., has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to settle a civil rights suit brought by an 82-year-old doctor who claimed he was falsely arrested for displaying an anti-war sign at a campaign event for President Bush in September 2003."

What made this particular case notable was that defense lawyers filed a motion in July seeking to prohibit the plaintiff from mentioning Bush's name during the trial, on the grounds that the president was so unpopular that it would be prejudicial to their case.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow. Come join the conversation.

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on missing tapes; Dan Wasserman and Ben Sargent on where's Bush's sympathies lie; and Mike Thompson on converging scandals.

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