White House on Torture Hot Seat

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 9, 2004; 10:51 AM

As more high-level memos about torture come to light -- along with news of an incendiary allegation pointing directly from Abu Ghraib to the White House -- the pressure is increasing for President Bush to explain what role he played in setting interrogation rules.

Mike Allen and Dana Priest write in The Washington Post: "The disclosure that the Justice Department advised the White House in 2002 that the torture of al Qaeda terrorist suspects might be legally defensible has focused new attention on the role President Bush played in setting the rules for interrogations in the war on terrorism. . . .

"A former senior administration official involved in discussions about CIA interrogation techniques said Bush's aides knew he wanted them to take an aggressive approach.

"'He felt very keenly that his primary responsibility was to do everything within his power to keep the country safe, and he was not concerned with appearances or politics or hiding behind lower-level officials,' the official said. 'That is not to say he was ready to authorize stuff that would be contrary to law. The whole reason for having the careful legal reviews that went on was to ensure he was not doing that.'"

Speaking with NPR's Robert Siegel, Dana Priest describes the White House's role in commissioning -- and receiving -- the 2002 Justice Department memo.

Abu Ghraib and the White House

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "The head of the interrogation center at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq told an Army investigator in February that he understood some of the information being collected from prisoners there had been requested by 'White House staff,' according to an account of his statement obtained by The Washington Post."

Ashcroft Refuses to Give

Meanwhile, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, on Capitol Hill for a contentious hearing yesterday, refused to turn over torture memos and defended the White House.

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "Under questioning, Ashcroft said he could not discuss whether the president issued any orders on the interrogation of detainees, but said: 'I want to confirm that the president has not directed or ordered any conduct that would violate any one of those enactments of the United States Congress or that would violate the provisions of any of the treaties as they have been entered into by the United States.'"

Sara Schaefer Muñoz and Jess Bravin write in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Ashcroft's appearance before lawmakers provided the forum for the administration's most high-level discussion of the torture question since news of the memos was disclosed. But he declined to say what advice he has given the president or the Pentagon on the topic. 'For us to discuss all the legal ramifications of the war is not in our best interest, and it has never been in times of war,' he said. But he said that the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., whose jurisdiction includes the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, had created a special team to investigate allegations of torture-law violations."

Read One Memo Yourself

The Wall Street Journal Online has Web-published sections of the March 2003 draft report "prepared by Defense Department lawyers, in which administration attorneys argued that President Bush has the constitutional authority to disregard both international treaties and federal laws banning torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners." (No subscription required for these.)

That memo, as Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek.com, includes the "argument that the president, as commander-in-chief, is not bound to observe international laws against torture, or even a 1996 U.S. law enacted to comply with the U.N.-sponsored Convention Against Torture."

In the New York Times, Neil A. Lewis provides a helpful rundown of the various interrogation memos that have come to light.

Pentagon Not Backing Off

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, reporting from the Pentagon, describes the memos and the Ashcroft testimony and concludes: "Officials here still insist the aggressive interrogations don't come anywhere near torture. In fact, one senior official complains the tactics now being used aren't tough enough."

Editorial Page Watch

You don't often see this much righteous indignation from editorial boards. I'd say this story has legs.

Washington Post editorial: "Perhaps the president's lawyers have no interest in the global impact of their policies -- but they should be concerned about the treatment of American servicemen and civilians in foreign countries."

New York Times editorial: "What we have seen, topped by that legalistic treatise on torture, shows clearly that Mr. Bush set the tone for this dreadful situation by pasting a false 'war on terrorism' label on the invasion of Iraq."

Los Angeles Times editorial: "The Bush administration's Justice Department turned the Constitution on its head by telling the White House in an August 2002 memo -- written nearly a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- not only that torture 'may be justified' but that laws against torture 'may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations' in the U.S. war on terror."

Humility at the G-8

Back on Sea Island, Ga., the Bush team is doing something a bit unusual: Being deferential.

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush traveled to this week's Group of 8 summit of industrialized nations, searching for commitments of help in Iraq and for partners in his efforts to promote democratic reform in the Middle East.

"The president appears to be getting his wishes -- thanks to changing circumstances and the Bush administration's recent willingness to compromise. . . .

"The Bush administration has faced criticism from allies and enemies for its perceived arrogance. But if there is a watchword for the administration at this summit, it is 'humility,' a word that came up repeatedly at a pre-summit session on Capitol Hill."

Curtius quotes an unnamed French diplomat: "And with humility, perhaps, comes the beginning of wisdom."

Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe: "On the last leg of a presidential term that will be remembered for a willingness to take unilateral action, the Bush administration yesterday relied on some uncharacteristic diplomacy and horse trading to win international support for its Iraq and Mideast initiatives."

The White House Web site's G8 page has lots of transcripts.

Victory at the U.N.

Peter Slevin and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that the U.N. Security Council's unanimous endorsement of a new Iraqi government yesterday "opened the door to a fresh, if uncertain, stage of the Bush administration's project to remake Iraq. After months of insisting on control, the White House calculated that Iraqi leaders backed by a more united international community could turn back the militant opposition that has beset the occupation.

"President Bush, preparing to welcome leaders of the world's most industrialized economies to the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., hailed the vote as a 'catalyst for change.' He called it 'a very important moment in seeing that our objective is achieved.'"

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "The United States and its biggest allies are proclaiming that a unanimous U.N. vote will heal their bitter divisions over Iraq. But the newfound unity faces a major test when they take up a U.S. plan to expand the push for democracy throughout the Arab world."

And "significantly, the four G-8 nations that have refused to send troops to Iraq -- Russia, France, Germany and Canada -- said the U.N. Security Council resolution did not change their opposition to putting troops in the country."

Onward to the Greater Middle East

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush will try today to put action behind his bold case that a stable and democratic Iraq could help spread democracy throughout the Middle East and to win over Arab leaders worried that America wants to impose reforms on them.

"Cloistered with other world leaders on a barrier island off Georgia for an international summit, Bush will hold a crucial lunch with a group of leaders from the Middle East."

Sonya Ross writes for the Associated Press: "It may seem innocent enough to President Bush, the notion of training 100,000 teachers across the Middle East to improve the quality of education and perhaps also cut down on the chance that religious schools will crank out future terrorists.

"Yet Arabs and Europeans at the Group of Eight summit here are bristling over this and other aspects of Bush's proposed Middle East democracy initiative. They consider it a heavy-handed effort to foist American ideas on a region with ideas of its own."

Plame Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Two news media organizations have filed motions to quash subpoenas that were issued by a special prosecutor investigating the leak of a covert CIA officer's identity, attorneys in the case said yesterday."

Reagan Legacy Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The line is not likely to make this week's eulogies to Ronald Reagan, but when Vice President Cheney allegedly declared, 'Reagan proved deficits don't matter,' he summed up an enduring argument from the former president's economic legacy."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that the relationship between the Reagans and two generations of Bushes "has been strained for periods by political ambition, social resentment and a lack of chemistry between two formidable first ladies.

"None of that is evident in the public words of mourning this week from the current president, who has used Mr. Reagan's presidency as a model for his own. And yet he scarcely knew the man himself, Reagan advisers say. When Mr. Reagan was president, the younger Mr. Bush would come by the vice president's office to see his father, telling stories with his cowboy boots on the table -- and watching Mr. Reagan from afar."

Michael Moore Watch

Arthur Spiegelman reports for Reuters: "Director Michael Moore's controversial anti-Iraq war film 'Fahrenheit 9/11' won a standing ovation on Tuesday night from an audience of film industry professionals attending its West Coast debut at Academy Award headquarters."

Twins Watch

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "The Bush twins, who have tried to stay out of view for most of their father's political career, might give campaign speeches this year, Laura Bush said Tuesday."

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