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Torture Is All in the Subtext

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 18, 2006; 12:58 PM

President Bush was at his most pugnacious and disingenuous Friday in a Rose Garden press conference, refusing to give reporters a direct answer about where he stands on torture.

Here's the transcript . Bush's repeated refrain -- that all he wants is for Congress to bring "clarity" to the Geneva Conventions -- was so far from the truth that straight news reporting simply wasn't up to the task of conveying the real meaning of the day.

So let's go right to the editorials.

Editorial Watch

The Washington Post editorial board explains what Bush meant when he said his "one test" for legislation was whether Congress would authorize "the program."

Writes The Post: "He's talking about the practice of sequestering terrorist suspects indefinitely and without charge in secret foreign locations and holding them incommunicado even from the International Red Cross. Until recently, such 'disappearances' were the signature of Third World dictatorships. . . .

"Mr. Bush also wants the CIA to be able to treat its detainees to such practices as 'cold cell,' or induced hypothermia, in which detainees are held naked in near-freezing temperatures and repeatedly doused with water; 'long standing,' in which prisoners are handcuffed in an uncomfortable standing position and forced to remain there for up to 40 hours; and prolonged sleep deprivation.

"Throughout the world and for decades, such practices have been called torture. That's what the United States called them when they were used by the Soviet KGB. As the president himself tacitly acknowledges, they violate Geneva and other international conventions as well as current U.S. law."

For a little background, The Post notes: "Common Article 3, which prohibits cruel treatment and humiliation, is an inflexible standard. . . . The Army issued a thick manual this month that tells interrogators exactly what they can and cannot do in complying with the standard. The nation's most respected military leaders have said that they need and want nothing more to accomplish the mission of detaining and interrogating enemy prisoners -- and that harsher methods would be counterproductive. . . .

"Mr. Bush's real objection to Common Article 3 is not that it is vague. It is that it will not permit abusive practices that he isn't willing publicly to discuss or defend."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "On the treatment of detainees, the president has been especially disingenuous. He has never been a fan of international law, so it's absurd for him to pretend to want to 'clarify' the Geneva Convention. What he clearly wants to do is gut the treaty's humanitarian protections for wartime detainees, with an eye toward retroactively legitimizing abusive CIA interrogation tactics used on terrorism suspects."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Watching the president on Friday in the Rose Garden as he threatened to quit interrogating terrorists if Congress did not approve his detainee bill, we were struck by how often he acts as though there were not two sides to a debate. We have lost count of the number of times he has said Americans have to choose between protecting the nation precisely the way he wants, and not protecting it at all.

"On Friday, President Bush posed a choice between ignoring the law on wiretaps, and simply not keeping tabs on terrorists. Then he said the United States could rewrite the Geneva Conventions, or just stop questioning terrorists. To some degree, he is following a script for the elections: terrify Americans into voting Republican. But behind that seems to be a deeply seated conviction that under his leadership, America is right and does not need the discipline of rules. He does not seem to understand that the rules are what makes this nation as good as it can be."

Opinion Watch

"Time is running out," Bush said on Friday. "Congress is set to adjourn in just a few weeks." So what's the hurry?

One theory is that the next Congress might not be so amenable to giving Bush legal cover.

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The Supreme Court has ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to the prisoners seized by the administration, which means that abusing those prisoners -- as so many have said for so long -- is unquestionably illegal. And there is also the possibility that the Democrats, if they ever wake up, may take control of at least one house of Congress, giving them the kind of subpoena power and oversight that makes the administration tremble. . . .

"The reason President Bush has been trying so frantically to get Congressional passage of his plan to interrogate and try terror suspects is that he needs its contorted interpretations of the law to keep important cases from falling apart, and to cover the collective keisters of higher-ups who may have authorized or condoned war crimes."

Paul Krugman , writing in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required), asks another fine question: "[W]hy is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?"

His answer: "To show that it can."

The Coverage

Among straight news reporters, R. Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post came closest to explaining what was really going on Friday -- although his article was on page three of Saturday's paper, rather than page one.

"The nature and legitimacy of [the CIA's] coercive techniques is the largely unpublicized subtext of the legislative dispute that has erupted between the administration and its opponents on Capitol Hill, including lawmakers from both parties who have said privately that they find some of the CIA's past interrogation methods abhorrent," Smith wrote.

Smith drew attention to several of the outright contradictions in the administration's position, calling them "ironies."

"The administration says its intent is to define the explicit meaning of Common Article 3 so that CIA officers know exactly what they can do. But the senior official who addressed the legal issue yesterday said the standard the administration prefers is 'context-sensitive,' a phrase that suggests an endlessly shifting application of the rules.

"The reason is that the administration's language would in effect ban only those interrogation techniques that 'shock the conscience.' That phrase, drawn from a judicial interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, is a 'flexible' standard, the official said. Others have said that standard would allow interrogators to weigh how urgently they felt they needed to extract information against the harshness of their techniques, instead of following rigid guidelines.

"The official did not try to explain how embracing such an inherently flexible standard would actually create clarity, the watchword of the administration's public campaign for its version of the bill," Smith wrote with great understatement.

"Another irony lies in the fact that the congressional rules for interrogations that the Bush administration now seeks to embrace in the new legislation -- the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 -- were vigorously opposed by the White House before their adoption by Congress. Bush disliked them so much that when he signed the law Dec. 30, he appended a statement objecting to some of its provisions and explicitly reserved his right to interpret them 'in a manner consistent' with his constitutional authorities as president and commander in chief. . . .

"[Senator John] McCain -- who made clear in congressional debate last year that he disapproved of what the CIA was doing -- was surprised to learn later that the Detainee Treatment Act did not put a stop to it."

Greg Gordon and James Rosen wrote a helpful FAQ for McClatchy Newspapers.


David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's national security adviser signaled on Sunday that he was seeking a compromise with the Republican senators who are rebelling against the administration's proposal to explicitly permit certain severe interrogation practices against terrorism suspects. . . .

"Other administration officials said it became clear over the weekend that the administration was going to have to give ground. 'I don't think anyone anticipated the avalanche of opinion that would be assembled on the other side of what seemed like a pretty abstruse legal issue,' one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the issue with a reporter."

Michael Hirsh and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek that "recently Bush administration officials, in private negotiations with the Senate, have agreed to drop waterboarding from a list of approved CIA interrogation techniques, according to a Senate source involved in the dispute."

And they write that "McCain and the other GOP senators have indicated they would be willing to amend domestic U.S. law, especially the War Crimes Act, to permit at least some 'enhanced' CIA techniques. They are also willing to pass legislation that would deny many rights to detainees at Guantánamo Bay and allow them to be held indefinitely."

National security adviser Stephen Hadley appeared on three network news talk shows Sunday.

Here is video of Hadley avoiding George Stephanopoulos's questions on ABC.

Stephanopoulos: "The opponents say that it's - what you're trying to do is impose a flexible standard. And there must be a reason you're fighting for this so fiercely. I'm wondering what is it? What are the techniques that will be permitted under the President's bill that would be prohibited by the McCain bill? What is it you're trying to do?"

Hadley: "What we're trying to do is answer a call that comes from the men and women at the CIA that are responsible for questioning al Qaeda detainees."

Stephanopoulos quoted from this David Johnston story in the New York Times, which reported that terror suspect Abu Zubaydah "was stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music."

Stephanopoulous: "Is this the kind of interrogation you're trying to protect?"

Hadley: "We obviously can't go into the details what have we're doing."

Stephanopoulos's conclusion: "You're basically saying trust us. But after Abu Ghraib, after the misleading statements on weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links to al Qaeda, isn't it asking a lot of Congress and the country and the world simply to take your arguments on faith?"

Straw Man Watch

Here's an astonishing exchange from the Rose Garden on Friday:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. If a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State feels this way, don't you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you're following a flawed strategy?"

Bush's response was a straw-man argument.

"THE PRESIDENT: If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that. It's unacceptable to think that there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective."

It would have been worthwhile if someone at the news conference had followed up with something like this:

"In your response to the question about Colin Powell's statement that 'the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism' you made it sound like Powell was saying we were as bad as the terrorists, and you got very angry. But that's not even remotely what Powell was saying. He's simply saying that by pretty universal moral standards, your actions are questionable. Could you please respond to that critique, rather than to a made-up one?"

No one did.

No Controlling Legal Authority?

Here's what Bush had to say about all the attempts he's made in the past to link Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda: "I never said there was an operational relationship."

And he put forth yet another straw man, in response to a question about those statements: "I would hope people aren't trying to rewrite the history of Saddam Hussein -- all of a sudden, he becomes kind of a benevolent fellow."

Is This OK?

NBC's David Gregory tried repeatedly to get Bush to say how he'd feel if other countries started reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions as well. Bush wouldn't bite.

I wish Gregory had gone one step further, listing the CIA-approved tactics such as induced hypothermia, long standing and sleep deprivation and asking something like this: "You don't have to confirm that your administration has used these tactics -- although it has -- but please state for the record whether you would you be OK with other governments using these tactics on our captured special forces? Yes or no?"

Laugh Lines

Here's what happened when Bush called on Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times:

"Q Hi, Mr. President.

"THE PRESIDENT: Fine. How are you doing?

"Q I'm well today, thank you. (Laughter.)

"THE PRESIDENT: Did you start with, hi, Mr. President?

"Q Hello, Mr. President.

"THE PRESIDENT: Okay, that's fine. Either way, that's always a friendly greeting, thank you.

"Q We're a friendly newspaper.

"THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughter.) Let me just say, I'd hate to see unfriendly. (Laughter.)"

Body Language

Mike Allen blogs for Time that "as he stares down one last campaign, the President suddenly seems to be all adrenaline and testosterone. It shows in his frenetic schedule and in his assertive choice of words but perhaps most especially in his body language as he tries to win over midterm voters by looking and sounding commanding -- he's practically shaking voters by their lapels."

On case in point: Bush's interview with NBC's Matt Lauer on Sept. 8, much of it about torture.

Writes Allen: "Lauer holds his ground on the big rug as the Commander in Chief edges forward, encroaching on his space to the point that Lauer finally puts a hand on Bush's forearm to prevent a collision. When the cameras are turned off, according to a witness, Lauer tells the President, 'Whoa! I thought you were coming after me there.' Aides to both men laugh. The President lightens too, but adds, 'I feel really strongly about this subject.'"

United Nations

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The spotlight returns to Iraq and other problem areas of the Middle East as President Bush heads to the United Nations to address a host of global issues facing his administration."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims he'll dog President Bush this week at the UN to force the U.S. leader into a face to face debate over Iran's nuclear program, but the White House is taking extreme measures to keep that from happening."

The Campaign

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "From Rhode Island to New Mexico, from Connecticut to Tennessee, President Bush is emerging as the marquee name in this fall's Congressional elections -- courtesy not of his Republican Party but of the Democrats."

Sam Howe Verhovek writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A funny thing happened Friday when Karl Rove, the White House advisor, came to the Seattle suburbs to headline a fundraiser for freshman Republican Rep. Dave Reichert: The congressman did nothing to publicize the visit, and his challenger drew every bit of attention to it she could."

Iran Watch

Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott write for McClatchy Newspapers: "In an echo of the intelligence wars that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a high-stakes struggle is brewing within the Bush administration and in Congress over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and involvement in terrorism. . . .

"Some officials at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department said they're concerned that the offices of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney may be receiving a stream of questionable information that originates with Iranian exiles, including a discredited arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who played a role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. . . .

"Officials at all three agencies said they suspect that the dubious information may include claims that Iran directed Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in July; that Iran's nuclear program is moving faster than generally believed; and that the Iranian people are eager to join foreign efforts to overthrow their theocratic rulers."

Warming to Warming?

Geoffrey Lean writes in the Independent: "President Bush is preparing an astonishing U-turn on global warming, senior Washington sources say.

"After years of trying to sabotage agreements to tackle climate change he is drawing up plans to control emissions of carbon dioxide and rapidly boost the use of renewable energy sources.

"Administration insiders privately refer to the planned volte-face as Mr Bush's 'Nixon goes to China moment', recalling how the former president amazed the world after years of refusing to deal with its Communist regime. Hardline global warming sceptics, however, are already publicly attacking the plans."

Bush Meets With Right-Wing Radio

Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway write for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that right-wing talk-show host Mike Gallagher upstaged Ann Coulter at a Georgia Christian Coalition dinner Saturday night.

"He told the audience he was fresh back from an hour-and-45-minute session which President Bush held in the Oval Office Friday afternoon with him and four other conservative talk show hosts: Atlanta's Neal Boortz, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Michael Medved. Rush Limbaugh couldn't make it, he said.

"Though he said this session was supposed to be off the record, Gallagher described it at some length, including Bush's observation to the right-wing radio jocks that the War on Terror has to be about right versus wrong, 'because if it's about Christianity versus Islam, we'll lose.'"

Rodney Ho writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how Boortz broke off his vacation for the chance.

"Boortz said that Bush gave them a short tour of his private dining room and showed them the pistol Saddam Hussein had when he was captured."

Boortz himself blogs about it on his Web site.

Froomkin Watch

I'm attending a conference about Iraq and America tomorrow morning, so the column will resume on Wednesday.

Cartoon Watch

David Horsey and Ben Sargent on Bush's new clothes; Tony Auth on stability; Steve Sack on defining torture; Jeff Danzinger on cowards and idiots.

Camera Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post with an update on that small TV camera in the temporary White House briefing room that CBS reporter Bill Plante spotted panning from one reporter to another as they asked questions last week.

Apparently, it's been refitted with a stationary, wide-angle lens.

Rich's Book

New York Times columnist Frank Rich is out with a new book: "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina."

Ian Buruma reviews it for the Times, and writes that "the point of Rich's fine polemic is that the Bush administration has consistently lied about the reasons for going to war, about the way it was conducted and about the terrible consequences. Whatever the merits of removing a dictator, waging war under false pretenses is highly damaging to a democracy, especially when one of the ostensible aims is to spread democracy to others. If Rich is correct, which I think he is, the Bush administration has given hypocrisy a bad name. . . .

"How could this have happened? How could some of the best, most fact-checked, most reputable news organizations in the English-speaking world have been so gullible? How can one explain the temporary paralysis of skepticism? . . . An air of intimidation, which hung over the United States like a noxious vapor after 9/11, is part of the explanation. . . .

"There may be one other reason for the fumbling: the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story."

Role of the Media

On his CNN show on Sunday, Howard Kurtz talked to Gloria Borger of U.S. News and David Corn of the Nation.

"KURTZ: Gloria Borger, on torture of detainees, on terror on Iraq, have journalists become skeptical, if not hostile, toward President Bush?

"BORGER: Well, I think you're seeing is from the press conference that, clearly, the journalists are becoming more skeptical, but what they're doing is they're really voicing the concerns of some really senior senators in Congress who have voiced those concerns. And so, you know, we live down at the bottom of the food chain. . . .

"CORN: But let me make a suggestion here, too. The president and the vice president had a chance to prove to the public and the world that when they tell us things they basically get it right. But everything they said about the war in Iraq, the connections between Saddam and al Qaeda and Saddam's WMDs proved out to be wrong. Everything that Donald Rumsfeld has said about the war in Iraq in terms of how it would go has proven to be wrong.

"So I think any time they tell us anything, the media is right to say, 'Given your record, prove it. What do you mean?'

"KURTZ: But Gloria . . . isn't it also our job to voice the concerns of politicians who might support the president?

"BORGER: Well, I think it is. And some might say that journalists have been doing that for the last couple of years. But I think, honestly, that now there is a huge controversy, and what we're doing is reflecting that. . . .

"KURTZ: But doesn't that run the risk of making journalists look like they're part of the opposition?"

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