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Bush's Tortured Logic

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 8, 2005; 11:59 AM

Just what did President Bush mean yesterday when he said: "We don't torture?"

News outlets all over the world reported Bush's words as if they were definitive. But they are in fact enigmatic at best, because it's not at all clear what the president's definition of torture is.

His comments came yesterday in a press availability with President Martin Torrijos in Panama, in response to a question about secret CIA prison camps and Vice President Cheney's crusade against legislation that would prohibit U.S. government employees from using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

But if we don't torture, then why is the White House fighting tooth and nail against a law that would say as much? Why are those prison camps secret? And what are we to make of the widespread, documented practice of prisoner abuse? Bush wouldn't say. And he didn't take any follow-up questions.

Here's the full text of the exchange:

"Q Mr. President, there has been a bit of an international outcry over reports of secret U.S. prisons in Europe for terrorism suspects. Will you let the Red Cross have access to them? And do you agree with Vice President Cheney that the CIA should be exempt from legislation to ban torture?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people. The executive branch has the obligation to protect the American people; the legislative branch has the obligation to protect the American people. And we are aggressively doing that. We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do to that effort, to that end, in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.

"And, therefore, we're working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it possible -- more possible to do our job. There's an enemy that lurks and plots and plans, and wants to hurt America again. And so, you bet, we'll aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law. And that's why you're seeing members of my administration go and brief the Congress. We want to work together in this matter. We -- all of us have an obligation, and it's a solemn obligation and a solemn responsibility. And I'm confident that when people see the facts, that they'll recognize that we've -- they've got more work to do, and that we must protect ourselves in a way that is lawful."

Leave it to the bloggers to slice and dice:

Andrew Sullivan writes: "If that's the case, why threaten to veto a law that would simply codify what Bush alleges is already the current policy? If 'we do not torture,' how to account for the hundreds and hundreds of cases of abuse and torture by U.S. troops, documented by the government itself? If 'we do not torture,' why the memos that expanded exponentially the lee-way given to the military to abuse detainees in order to get intelligence? The president's only defense against being a liar is that he is defining 'torture' in such a way that no other reasonable person on the planet, apart from Bush's own torture apologists (and they are now down to one who will say so publicly), would agree. The press must now ask the president: does he regard the repeated, forcible near-drowning of detainees to be torture? Does he believe that tying naked detainees up and leaving them outside all night to die of hypothermia is 'torture'? Does he believe that beating the legs of a detainee until they are pulp and he dies is torture? Does he believe that beating detainees till they die is torture? Does he believe that using someone's religious faith against them in interrogations is 'cruel, inhumane and degrading' treatment and thereby illegal? What is his definition of torture?"

Bob Cesca writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "He's either outright lying or the administration has a very different definition of torture than the rest of the world. I would argue that it's both."

Steven C. Clemons writes: "Bush seems to think that his personal assessment about what is within the interests of the United States should be good enough for the citizens of the United States. The problem is that the American public doubts the Bush team's truthfulness -- particularly after the lies and mistruths that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove offered to colleagues like Scott McClellan, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, and the American public in the Valerie Plame outing case."

Clemons also excerpts from the influential Nelson Report, in which Chris Nelson writes that Bush appears to be claiming that when the facts come out, "we will discover that whatever torture which took place was done strictly according to his Administration's legal guidelines.

"And that, of course, goes to the crux of the matter . . . the President's infamous 'torture memo' which authorized CIA and military interrogators to torture someone up to but not past the point of 'organ failure and death' in order to make them talk. A friend with an interesting intelligence analysis approach to all this suggests: 'Bush sincerely, albeit conveniently, believes physical abuse without intent to cause permanent injury or loss to vital organs is not torture, and believes the CIA black op is staying within boundaries most of the time.' (The best historical analogy: 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.') Maybe . . . but even if true, it's hardly exculpation."

The Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, defending a clandestine U.S. prison system abroad for terrorism suspects, said Monday that his administration would continue to aggressively battle terrorism in sometimes unconventional but always lawful ways."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "U.S. interrogation practices have been under fire since news accounts in 2004 reported harsh tactics by U.S. interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and at detention facilities in Afghanistan. In a new case announced Monday, five Army Rangers were charged with abusing detainees in Iraq. . . .

"Over White House opposition, the Senate voted 90-9 last month to approve an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would ban the use of torture. Vice President Cheney has pushed for an exemption for the CIA.

"The administration has said in a statement that while it does not condone torture, it opposes the measure because it would be 'unnecessary or duplicative' and could restrict 'the president's ability to conduct the war (on terrorism) effectively under existing law.' "

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Despite repeated allegations of prisoner abuse, President Bush claimed yesterday the U.S. doesn't use torture, but he still argued against a proposed congressional ban on the practice. . . .

"But on the same day that Bush disavowed the use of torture, new allegations of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops erupted in Baghdad."

Warren P. Strobel and James Kuhnhenn write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Nineteen months after the first revelations of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the Bush administration's position on treating detainees is increasingly under fire.

"[A] growing number of lawmakers, both moderate Republicans and Democrats, argue that abuse of prisoners is immoral, has devastated the United States' image and ability to project its values overseas, and would endanger captured American soldiers or civilians."

Separation of Powers on Trial

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to rule on the legality of the Bush administration's planned military commissions for accused terrorists, setting up what could be one of the most significant rulings on presidential war powers since the end of World War II.

"President Bush has claimed broad power to conduct the war against al Qaeda and said that questions about the detention of suspected terrorists, their interrogation, trial and punishment are matters for him to decide as commander in chief.

"But the court's announcement that it would hear the case of Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, shows that the justices feel the judicial branch has a role to play as well. The court has focused on whether Bush has the power to set up the commissions and whether detainees facing military trials can go to court in the United States to secure the protections guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Hamdan's lawyers, Professor Neal K. Katyal of Georgetown University Law Center and Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, argue that the president's executive action establishing the military commissions was simply without authorization.

" 'The president's unilateral creation of commissions,' they argue, 'his single-handed definition of the offenses and persons subject to their jurisdiction, and his promulgation of the rules of procedure combine to violate separation of powers.' They add: 'The Revolution was fought to ensure that no man, or branch of government, could be so powerful.' "

Beyond the Paper Trail

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee want the right to interview top policymakers or speechwriters as part of the inquiry into whether the Bush administration exaggerated or misused intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the panel's vice chairman, said yesterday.

"Rockefeller raised the possibility of issuing subpoenas, and outlined a more wide-ranging approach than the one described by Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who said the work would center on comparing public statements by administration officials to intelligence reports circulating at the time. Rockefeller, Roberts and four other senators are to meet today to work out a schedule and process for the committee's review."

Robert Scheer writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "Who in the White House knew about DITSUM No. 044-02 and when did they know it?

"That's the newly declassified smoking-gun document, originally prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency in February 2002 but ignored by President Bush. Its declassification this weekend blows another huge hole in Bush's claim that he was acting on the best intelligence available when he pitched the invasion of Iraq as a way to prevent an Al Qaeda terror attack using weapons of mass destruction."

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews last night kicked off a full week of shows devoted to the CIA leak case with a look back at how the case for war was sold in the first place.

Matthews: "Three years ago, the White House persuaded the media, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and a majority of the American people to accept their case for military action in Iraq -- largely based on a very powerful image, a nuclear mushroom cloud. The president, the vice president and others repeatedly warned of the looming threat of a nuclear weapon in Saddam Hussein`s arsenal that could be used against the territory of the United States."

Here's David Shuster's report on how that happened.

No-Pardon Pledge?

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid yesterday called on President Bush to affirmatively state that he will not pardon any of the people involved in the leaking of classified information.

Arianna Huffington writes in her blog: "According to the pundits, a pardon is a done deal. All that's up for grabs is the timing.

"Will it be after Scooter changes his plea to guilty, thus pulling the plug on a trial -- and robbing us of the pleasure of seeing Dick Cheney on the stand, under oath, being grilled on WMD, aluminum tubes, the WHIG, and the campaign to smear Joe Wilson? Or will Bush follow in the footsteps of his father's pardon of Cap Weinberger, and give Libby his presidential Stay Out of Jail Free card preemptively, before he even has to admit to any wrongdoing?

"Of course, there is a third option: Bush assenting to Reid's request and taking the pardon option off the table. That would be the best way to offer the American people the chance to finally learn the truth -- which after all, is what the president has repeatedly said he is after. . . .

"I hear that a number of powerful Democratic senators are working behind the scenes on a plan to force the issue."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. EST, happily responding to your questions and comments.

The End of a Bad Trip

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Before Bush left for his visit to Argentina -- where he attended the Summit of the Americas -- Brazil and Panama, some analysts thought the trip abroad might help him shake off political troubles in Washington and put him in a statesmanlike setting. But afterward, several said the trip was far from a ringing success.

" 'The trip hasn't helped at all in Latin America. It reduced his stature in Latin America,' said David de Ferranti, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. 'To the extent that the Bush team hoped the trip would boost him at home, that hasn't happened. He looks weak abroad, and these are not good signals.'

" 'My impression is that he'll be very happy to get home,' Pastor said."

Bush in Virginia

Bush stopped off in Richmond last night on his way home from South America to headline a spirited, election-eve rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "In jumping into the Virginia governor's race just 10 hours before polling booths open, President Bush put his credibility on the line last night and ensured that the results will be interpreted as a referendum on his troubled presidency. But the White House is gambling that after weeks of political tribulations, Bush has little more to lose. . . .

"White House strategists evidently calculated that a Kilgore defeat would be seen as a defeat for Bush even if the president did not set foot on the southern side of the Potomac . . . [while] if Kilgore wins, it would offer a well-timed vindication of Bush's clout. . . .

"The picture on most front pages and television newscasts today will feature Bush and Kilgore together. Democrats are wagering that the pairing actually will help drive their own base to the polls, working in [Democratic nominee Tim] Kaine's favor."

Here is the transcript of Bush's remarks.

Mike Allen writes for Time: "The President, who can be tired and cranky after an overseas foray, basked in the adulation, grinning, doling out 360-degree waves and giving his full-body chuckle as if someone were tickling him. As he waited for the applause to die down, he looked happier than he had any time since his triumphal post-election news conference a year and three days earlier. . . .

"Bush pulled out all the stops, calling Kilgore 'Governor' and kissing the ladies onstage. 'I like a guy who loves his wife -- I sure love mine,' Bush said, to applause, standing in front of a huge 'Victory For Virginia' placard. His 18 minutes of remarks laid it on thick, saying that Kilgore, who had been tortured in the press for his mountain twang, 'doesn't have a lot of fancy airs' and is 'a down-to-earth person.' . . .

"Kilgore told Time what a thrill it had been to greet Bush at the foot of the Air Force One stairs, then ride to the hangar in the limo with the president and the first lady. 'He was in the most fantastic mood when he got off that plane,' Kilgore recalled. 'The President said, "You make the decision, Jerry: Tie, or no tie?'' The President had come down the stairs of the plane tieless, and that's usually the time when the local guy takes off his own. But Kilgore didn't get that memo. 'I already had a tie, so he followed my fashion advice,' Kilgore said."

Traveling Man

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush returned from Panama late Monday at the end of a five-day trip that included a hemispheric summit in Argentina and was leaving for an eight-day trip to Asia on Nov. 14. That gives him precious little time to work on his domestic agenda, help win support for replacement Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito and deal with the fallout from the CIA leak case that involved two of his top aides.

"Between his foreign visits, a trip home to Texas for the Thanksgiving holiday and other domestic travel in between, Bush will spend roughly two-thirds of November away from the White House."

Bush-Cheney Rift?

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "The CIA leak scandal has peeled back the veil on the most closely held White House secret of all: the subtle but unmistakable erosion in the bond between President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

"Multiple sources close to Bush told the Daily News that while the vice president remains his boss' valued political partner and counselor, his clout has lessened -- primarily as a result of issues arising from the Iraq war.

" 'The relationship is not what it was,' a presidential counselor said. 'There has been some distance for some time.' "

"A senior administration official termed any such suggestion 'categorically false.' "

The Cheney Factor

The New York Times editorial board is blunt: "After President Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his presidency still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with on the domestic front. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long."

Their suggestion for a Bush comeback: "Mr. Bush cannot fire Mr. Cheney, but he could do what other presidents have done to vice presidents: keep him too busy attending funerals and acting as the chairman of studies to do more harm. Mr. Bush would still have to turn his administration around, but it would at least send a signal to the nation and the world that he was in charge, and the next three years might not be as dreadful as they threaten to be right now."

Daniel Benjamin writes in Slate: "It has become a cliche to say that Dick Cheney is the most powerful vice president in American history. Nonetheless, here is a prediction: When the historians really get digging into the paper entrails of the Bush administration -- or possibly when Scooter Libby goes on trial -- those who have intoned that phrase will still be astonished at the extent to which the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney was the center of power inside the White House -- and at the grip it had on foreign and defense policy."

James Carroll writes in a Boston Globe op-ed column: "The indictment of the vice president's chief of staff for perjury and obstruction of justice is an occasion to consider just how damaging the long public career of Richard Cheney has been to the United States."

Here's one of Carroll's anecdotes: "When the World Trade Center towers were hit in New York, it was Cheney who told a shaken President Bush to flee. . . .

"The 9/11 Commission found that, from the White House situation room, Cheney warned the president that a 'specific threat' had targeted Air Force One, prompting Bush to spend the day hiding in the bunker at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska. There was no specific threat. In Bush's absence, Cheney, implying an authorizing telephone call from the president, took command of the nation's response to the crisis. There was no authorizing telephone call. The 9/11 Commission declined to make an issue of Cheney's usurpation of powers, but the record shows it."

Karl Rove Watch

John McCaslin writes in the Washington Times: "Having dodged indictment in the CIA leak scandal, White House senior adviser Karl Rove Thursday will stand before a roomful of judges and lawyers -- as keynote speaker of the Federalist Society's 2005 National Lawyers Convention."

Novak Watch

Don Kaplan writes in the New York Post: "Columnist Robert Novak appears to be done at CNN."

Secret Sycophants

Howard Kurtz writes in his washingtonpost.com blog this morning about one of his pet peeves: "It's bad enough that journalists overuse and abuse unnamed sources who either rip their rivals or say something critical of their own operation, but at least there is a patina of a rationale -- namely, that no one, at least in politics, would make such utterances on the record.

"But saying something positive about your own side? Why on earth should we drape a cloak of anonymity around such people?"

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