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Bush's Feeble Torture Dodge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 2:10 PM

President Bush's attempt on Friday to bat down the renewed furor over his secretive and brutal interrogation policies was profoundly empty of meaning -- and utterly ineffective.

Bush once again denied that his administration has engaged in torture, even as more evidence emerged that he continues to sanction behavior that most people would call just that. He wrapped himself in the flag and mobilized the rhetorical straw men, but offered not one new reason why anyone should believe him.

It's worth parsing his words carefully. Here's the transcript of his remarks, inserted into what was originally supposed to be a briefing solely about the economy.

Bush: "There's been a lot of talk in the newspapers and on TV about a program that I put in motion to detain and question terrorists and extremists. I have put this program in place for a reason, and that is to better protect the American people. And when we find somebody who may have information regarding an -- a potential attack on America, you bet we're going to detain them, and you bet we're going to question them -- because the American people expect us to find out information -- actionable intelligence so we can help protect them. That's our job."

Nobody, of course, is suggesting that the government shouldn't detain or interrogate legitimate terrorist suspects; the question is whether or not it should torture them -- an issue Bush then dealt with cursorily.

"Secondly, this government does not torture people. You know, we stick to U.S. law and our international obligations."

By now, Bush's insistence that "we don't torture" has become a perverse tautology: It doesn't mean that we don't torture; it just means that if we do it, he doesn't call it torture. (See Jon Stewart and John Oliver, quoted below.) And was Bush asserting some sort of hairsplitting distinction between obligations and laws?

"Thirdly, there are highly trained professionals questioning these extremists and terrorists. In other words, we got professionals who are trained in this kind of work to get information that will protect the American people. And by the way, we have gotten information from these high-value detainees that have helped protect you."

But evidence of the success of harsh interrogation techniques is hard to find. Bush's insistence in February 2006, for instance, that CIA interrogation thwarted an Al Qaeda attack on Los Angeles was quickly downplayed by intelligence officials. And what little investigative reporting I've seen suggests that harsh interrogation has produced little to no valuable information -- certainly none that experts say couldn't have been obtained through traditional means.

"And finally, the techniques that we use have been fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress. The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attack. And that's exactly what this government is doing, and that's exactly what we'll continue to do."

But those members of Congress say they have not been fully briefed on the Bush policies.

And as for what the American people expect? Well, I think they expect their government not to engage in torture.

The Coverage

Greg Miller and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush on Friday defended the CIA's harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, saying its methods do not constitute torture and are necessary to protect America from attack.

"But Bush's declaration that the United States 'does not torture people' did little to dampen the fallout from fresh evidence that his administration has used secret legal memos to sanction tactics that stretch, if not circumvent, the law."

Michael Abramowitz and Joby Warrick write in Saturday's Washington Post: "Bush's statement that Congress has been briefed on the interrogation tactics drew a swift and angry reaction from Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

"'The administration can't have it both ways,' Rockefeller said in a statement. 'I'm tired of these games. They can't say that Congress has been fully briefed while refusing to turn over key documents used to justify the legality of the program.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that Bush's "comments only provoked another round of recriminations on Capitol Hill, as Democrats ratcheted up their demands to see the classified memorandums, first reported Thursday by The New York Times. . . .

"On Friday, the deputy White House press secretary, Tony Fratto, took The Times to task for publishing the information, saying the newspaper had compromised America's security.

"'I've had the awful responsibility to have to work with The New York Times and other news organizations on stories that involve the release of classified information,' Mr. Fratto said. 'And I could tell you that every time I've dealt with any of these stories, I have felt that we have chipped away at the safety and security of America with the publication of this kind of information.'"

Torture Opinion

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "President Bush said Friday, as he has many times before, that 'this government does not torture people.' But presidential declarations can't change the facts. The record shows that Mr. Bush and a compliant Justice Department have repeatedly authorized the CIA to use interrogation methods that the rest of the world -- and every U.S. administration before this one -- have regarded as torture: techniques such as simulated drowning, induced hypothermia, sleep deprivation and prolonged standing."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush and his aides have not only condoned torture and abuse at secret prisons, but they have conducted a systematic campaign to mislead Congress, the American people and the world about those policies. . . .

"Mr. Bush and his aides were still clinging to their rationalizations at the end of last week. The president declared that Americans do not torture prisoners and that Congress had been fully briefed on his detention policies.

"Neither statement was true -- at least in what the White House once scorned as the 'reality-based community' -- and Senator John Rockefeller, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, was right to be furious."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "President Bush defended his administration on Friday, claiming that, 'This government does not torture people.'

"Well, of course we don't torture them. We call freezing conditions, slaps to the head, and simulated drowning (a friendlier term than water-boarding, we presume) something else in this country.

"We call it 'tough, safe, necessary and lawful,' in the words of White House press secretary Dana Perino. We call it 'fully consistent with the legal standards,' according to Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. But we certainly don't call it torture, because torture is 'abhorrent,' according to the Justice Department's 2004 statements. Torture is 'cruel, inhumane, and degrading,' according to the Geneva Conventions. And, perhaps most importantly, torture is illegal, according to the laws passed by Congress. . . .

"The administration has lost all credibility on this issue. Its rote denials of wrongdoing are simply insulting. Semantics - like simply choosing new words for certain practices once named 'torture' - and stretching for legal loopholes is neither a smart nor effective way for the executive branch to conduct itself. In case the administration hadn't noticed, we're at war, and there are real threats to American security. In order to properly combat those threats, the American people need an executive branch we can trust to obey the guidelines we've set out for it. On the matter of torture, this administration is definitely not the one."

H.D.S. Greenway writes in his Boston Globe opinion column: "In half a century of reporting around the world, I have found that there was usually a feeling that the United States stood for standards of liberty, human rights, and the dignity of mankind. The Bush administration has taken us off that gold standard and drained away much of that reservoir of respect. The horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have eaten away at America's credibility and moral standing, dismaying our friends and empowering our enemies. . . .

"Men and women of good will may differ on how much power the executive branch should have, and how much of our privacy and civil liberties need to be curtailed in an age of terrorism. As the former deputy attorney general, James Comey, who tried to stem the tide of the administration's malfeasance, said: there are 'agonizing collisions' between the law and the desire to protect Americans. But no good will can be ascribed to those who secretly sought to undermine the republic by their underhanded advocacy of torture.

"Instead of entering into an honest debate, the administration spoke of its 'abhorrence' of torture while at the same time secretly promoting it. Not surprisingly, the fine hand of Vice President Dick Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, could be discerned. Despite his bluster, President Bush, 'the decider,' has turned out to be a weak president, riddled with insecurities masked by stubbornness, who has allowed his subordinates to gnaw away at the Constitution."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "The Administration says its firm, absolutist assertions are designed to protect U.S. troops in case they are captured: by insisting the U.S. doesn't torture, the hope is others will feel compelled to refrain from doing so. But in practice, the Administration's declarations have exactly the opposite effect. It's not just that Washington has very little credibility on the issue, given all the evidence linking the U.S. to torture that has surfaced in recent years, including the opinion of the international body charged with observing detainee treatment. More importantly, by continuing to battle with the ICRC and other international organizations over the definition of torture, the Bush Administration is undermining those groups and diminishing their chances of protecting captured U.S. troops in the future."

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes on washingtonpost.com: "Jonathan Swift was being satirical with his 'modest proposal' that the Irish eliminate poverty and hunger by eating their young. Let me know if you agree that Swift would endorse my modest proposal: Bush administration officials who claim the 'harsh' interrogation techniques being used on terrorism suspects are not torture should have to undergo those same techniques. Personally. Repeatedly. . . .

"Until George W. Bush can say, 'Hey, I've been waterboarded, and it wasn't so bad,' or Alberto Gonzales can say, 'To tell the truth, spending those three days naked in a freezing-cold cell wasn't painful or anything,' then I'll continue to believe that history will condemn this administration for a shocking lapse of moral judgment."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, meanwhile, opines: "On current course, U.S. warfighting doctrine will be as tame as a church social."

The Humorists Get It

There's nothing funny about torture. And yet the most insightful -- and certainly most succinct -- views on the subject, as usual, come from the political "humorists".

Here are cartoons by Stuart Carlson, Ann Telnaes, Mike Luckovich, Steve Benson, Tony Auth, Rex Babin, Bill Mitchell, and John Sherffius.

Here's video of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart bitterly playing the game: "Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading or O-Tay."

Stewart also shows White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend telling CNN on Thursday: "We start with the least harsh measures first. It stops after -- if someone becomes cooperative." But as Stewart points out, that's not a refutation of torture. "That's how you do it. It wouldn't work the other way around."

And John Oliver explains administration policy to Stewart: "If we do do those things, they must not be torture."

Stewart: "So words, in and of themselves, have no value?"

Oliver: "Wow. Wow. I'd have thought you'd at least support our words, Jon. . . . Our brave, fighting words who've been serving this country since this war on terror began, many of them making the ultimate sacrifice: Losing their definitions.

"Words like torture, victory, surge, mission, accomplished. Once filled with purpose, now signifying nothing."

Wiretapping Watch

Eric Lichtblau and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "Two months after insisting that they would roll back broad eavesdropping powers won by the Bush administration, Democrats in Congress appear ready to make concessions that could extend some crucial powers given to the National Security Agency.

"Administration officials say they are confident they will win approval of the broadened authority that they secured temporarily in August as Congress rushed toward recess. Some Democratic officials concede that they may not come up with enough votes to stop approval.

"As the debate over the eavesdropping powers of the National Security Agency begins anew this week, the emerging measures reflect the reality confronting the Democrats.

"Although willing to oppose the White House on the Iraq war, they remain nervous that they will be called soft on terrorism if they insist on strict curbs on gathering intelligence."

But Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that the House bill, at least, "would compel the administration 'to reveal to Congress the details of all electronic surveillance conducted without court orders since Sept. 11, 2001, including the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program.' It would also require the maintenance of a data base to record the identities of all Americans whose conversations are surveilled. And it provides nothing at all in the way of amnesty or immunity for lawbreaking telecoms or administration officials. The bill introduced by House leadership is a bill the White House will never accept and would certainly veto, and it is vastly better -- in important ways -- than the atrocity they enacted in August."

Iraq Watch

Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post: "For much of this year, the U.S. military strategy in Iraq has sought to reduce violence so that politicians could bring about national reconciliation, but several top Iraqi leaders say they have lost faith in that broad goal.

"Iraqi leaders argue that sectarian animosity is entrenched in the structure of their government. Instead of reconciliation, they now stress alternative and perhaps more attainable goals: streamlining the government bureaucracy, placing experienced technocrats in positions of authority and improving the dismal record of providing basic services."

Since national reconciliation is Bush's avowed goal in Iraq, that puts him in a bit of a bind. And there's more.

Jane Perlez writes in the New York Times: "Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons on Monday that he would remove half of the 5,000 British troops in Iraq by next spring, and left open the strong possibility that all British soldiers would leave Iraq by the end of 2008. . . .

"Since President Bush has made clear that American troops will remain heavily committed in Iraq at least through his administration's end in January 2009, it appears that the tight alliance on Iraq forged between Mr. Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, and Washington is fraying. Indeed, a hallmark of Mr. Brown's three months as prime minister has been the relative distance he has established with the American president."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The 'coalition of the willing' is over. One by one, its members have ceded the bloodstained ground to the battling Iraqis and the unyielding U.S. president. . . .

"The United States should take note and recognize that it is a delusion to believe that any foreign occupier can stop Iraqi factions hellbent on fighting for power. We owe the Iraqis our best efforts at mediation, but to insist on stability as a prerequisite for withdrawal is to commit to indefinite and fruitless military occupation."

What Troop Reduction?

CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports that, despite Bush's promise last month, there's no sign of any troops coming home because of the surge's success.

Blackwater Watch

Steven R. Hurst and Qassim Abdul-Zahra write for the Associated Press: "Iraqi authorities want the U.S. government to sever all contracts in Iraq with Blackwater USA within six months. They also want the firm to pay $8 million in compensation to families of each of the 17 people killed when its guards sprayed a traffic circle with heavy machine gun fire last month.

"The demands -- part of an Iraqi government report examined by The Associated Press -- also called on U.S. authorities to hand over the Blackwater security agents involved in the Sept. 16 shootings to face possible trial in Iraqi courts.

"The tone of the Iraqi report appears to signal further strains between the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the White House over the deaths in Nisoor Square -- which have prompted a series of U.S. and Iraqi probes and raised questions over the use of private security contractors to guard U.S. diplomats and other officials."

Bush's Interview

Bush spent almost an hour on Friday with Elie Nakozi, an anchor for Al Arabiya ("we're not Al Jazeera") television. Here's the transcript. Nakozi scaled new heights of reportorial sycophancy -- even as he popped in a few tough questions.

Consider the opening:

Nakozi: "Actually, I want to tell the people of the Middle East that this is the place where big decisions are made. This is the office. But here it comes to my mind that how hard it is on you, Mr. President, to take like -- a big decision like war, for example."

Soon after:

Nakozi: "But I want to tell you -- and I hope this doesn't bother you at all -- that in the Islamic world they think that President Bush is an enemy of Islam --

Bush: "Sure."

Nakozi: "-- that he wants to destroy their religion, what they believe in. Is that in any way true, Mr. President?"

Bush: "No, it's not. I've heard that, and it just shows [sic] to show a couple of things: One, that the radicals have done a good job of propagandizing. In other words, they've spread the word that this really isn't peaceful people versus radical people or terrorists, this is really about the America not liking Islam."

Bush the controversial theologian was also on display: "Well, first of all, I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That's what I believe. I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace."

Nakozi repeatedly asked Bush about Iran: "Mr. President, have you made the decision to strike Iran, as some are saying, or trying to say that you will not leave your administration and office before you strike Iran militarily?" And then later, after a nonanswer: "[I]s it true that you have issued orders, Mr. President, to your senior generals in the American military to prepare for a major and precise strike that could happen during the end of January or February?"

Bush replied: "I would call that empty propaganda. Evidently there's a lot of gossip in parts of the country, world, that try to scare people about me, personally, or my country, or what we stand for. And that kind of gossip is just what it is -- it's gossip, it's baseless gossip."

So, no actual orders have been issued, apparently. But beyond that, who knows?

And here's a fascinating exchange. Raising the issue of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Nakozi asked: "I would like to know what was your reaction the first time when you heard that 15 Saudi Muslims were among the hijackers who committed this crime and this terrorist act. How did that affect your relationship with the Kingdom, which plays a major role in the region and particularly Crown Prince Abdullah -- now King Abdullah -- who is a personal friend of yours?"

Bush: "King Abdullah is a personal friend of mine, and I respect him. You know, I have seen murder before in my own country. I have seen evil people take innocent life. And when that's happened, I haven't condemned everybody else around. . . .

"In other words, my first reaction was not, look, the Saudis are bad people. My first reaction was, evil people came and killed, and we'll react to protect ourselves."

By attacking Iraq.

The Departed

Peter Baker writes in Sunday's Washington Post about the "parade of longtime aides who have headed for the door in recent months exhausted, sometimes discouraged and wrestling with the legacy of their experience. Karl Rove feels guilty for leaving in a time of war, yet he wants to reinvent himself as more than simply 'the Bush guy.' Peter H. Wehner rues lost friendships with those estranged by the war. Dan Bartlett is relieved to shed the burden of worrying that any day could bring another terrorist attack. . . .

"The long-term ideals that many of them came to the White House to pursue appear jeopardized, even discredited to many. They tell themselves that they have acted on principle, that the decisions they helped make will be vindicated. But they cannot be sure. . . .

"One former senior official said nearly everyone who has left the administration is angry in some way or another -- at the president for making bad decisions, at his staff for misguiding him, at events that have spiraled out of control. Others called that an exaggeration."

As for Rove: He "keeps a newspaper picture of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and his wife on the day Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. Rove says he holds onto it to remember. 'I'm really sad about Scooter,' he said. Although he does not say it, the picture may also be a reminder of what he avoided."

What's next for Bush's political guru? "Rove already has multiple options. While on the phone from Dallas before a meeting on the future Bush library, he excused himself to answer a knock at the hotel door. A package arrived and he ripped it open. 'I sign it and suddenly I'm a lot richer,' he said with Rovian mirth. What kind of contract, he would not say."

Baker adds: "At the end of the interview, he asked that his quotes be sent to the White House first. 'I'm still a cog in the great machine,' he explained.

"But even the cog does not want to be identified solely by his ties to the president. He knows he will go down in history as Bush's 'architect,' but he thinks he can expand his identity beyond just that. 'It's not like my life from here forward is going to be defined by it,' he said. 'I have a chance to create something else. I'm not just going to be typecast as, "Oh, that's the Bush guy."'"

Rove's Assistant

And Baker writes in yesterday's Post: "The revolving door at the White House continues with the departure of J. Scott Jennings, who is following his mentor and former boss, Karl Rove, out of the fishbowl. . . .

"Jennings was well regarded within the White House but came under fire for delivering private PowerPoint briefings on Republican election prospects at federal agencies where partisan activities are highly restricted. . . .

"Democratic lawmakers are investigating, but the White House defends its actions as completely legal. The Jennings briefings, it has said, were simply informational presentations to other political appointees.

"Congressional investigators have also sought Jennings's testimony on the firings of U.S. attorneys stemming from his involvement in the appointment of another former Rove aide, Tim Griffin, to replace Bud Cummins as U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Jennings's use of a Republican National Committee e-mail account to discuss the appointment has also drawn scrutiny. He cited executive privilege in declining to answer questions before a Senate committee in August."

No worries, though: "Rove and others see Jennings as an up-and-comer."


Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "A small private intelligence company that monitors Islamic terrorist groups obtained a new Osama bin Laden video ahead of its official release last month, and around 10 a.m. on Sept. 7, it notified the Bush administration of its secret acquisition. It gave two senior officials access on the condition that the officials not reveal they had it until the al-Qaeda release."

Those two officials: White House counsel Fred F. Fielding and Michael Leiter, who holds the No. 2 job at the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company's Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide.

"The founder of the company, the SITE Intelligence Group, says this premature disclosure tipped al-Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist group's communications network."

Poll Watch

Gallup reports: "According to a new Gallup Poll, conducted Oct. 4-7, 2007, President George W. Bush's job approval rating from the American public is an anemic 32%. That is slightly below his previous reading of 36% from mid-September, but is identical to his average approval score for all Gallup Polls conducted thus far in the second half of the year."

Send out the F-16s

Susan Kinzie writes in The Washington Post about how several antique plane enthusiasts at the annual Hagerstown Fly-In were "escorted out of the area by F-16s" after crossing into a temporary no-fly zone protecting the president.

Glad That's Settled

Here's a headline from a Society of Professional Journalists' convention news release: White House press reporters debunk lap dog myth.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, Tony Auth, Lalo Alcaraz and Ben Sargent on SCHIP. David Horsey on Cheney's math. Auth on Bush's next theater of operations. Tom Toles on the Bush legacy.

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien via U.S. News: "During a recent speech, President Bush said, this is a quote, 'My job is a decision-making job. As a result, I have made a lot of decisions.' Apparently, Bush's decision that day was to write his own speech."

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