White House Torture Advisers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 10, 2008; 1:20 PM

Top Bush aides, including Vice President Cheney, micromanaged the torture of terrorist suspects from the White House basement, according to an ABC News report aired last night.

Discussions were so detailed, ABC's sources said, that some interrogation sessions were virtually choreographed by a White House advisory group. In addition to Cheney, the group included then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then-secretary of state Colin Powell, then-CIA director George Tenet and then-attorney general John Ashcroft.

At least one member of the club had some qualms. ABC reports that Ashcroft "was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

"According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: 'Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.'"

Here's the video of last night's report by Jan Crawford Greenburg and a text version by Greenburg, Howard L. Rosenberg and Ariane de Vogue.

They write: "Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding...."

"As the national security adviser, Rice chaired the meetings, which took place in the White House Situation Room."

The discussions started after the CIA captured al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah in the spring of 2002, ABC reports. "At a time when virtually all counterterrorist professionals viewed another attack as imminent -- and with information on al Qaeda scarce -- the detention of Zubaydah was seen as a potentially critical breakthrough."

According to ABC, the CIA briefed the White House group on its plans to use aggressive techniques against Zubaydah and received explicit approval. Zubaydah is one of the three detainees the CIA has since confirmed were subjected to waterboarding, a notorious torture technique that amounts to controlled drowning.

Such techniques were later authorized in a controversial August 2002 Justice Department memo, signed by then head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee. ABC reports that the memo "was referred to as the so-called 'Golden Shield' for CIA agents, who worried they would be held liable if the harsh interrogations became public."

Nevertheless, even after the memo was in place, "briefings and meetings in the White House to discuss individual interrogations continued, sources said. Tenet, seeking to protect his agents, regularly sought confirmation from the NSC principals that specific interrogation plans were legal. . . .

"According to a former CIA official involved in the process, CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques. Agents, worried about overstepping their boundaries, would await guidance in particularly complicated cases dealing with high-value detainees, two CIA sources said. . . .

"At one meeting in the summer of 2003 -- attended by Vice President Cheney, among others -- Tenet made an elaborate presentation for approval to combine several different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time, according to a highly placed administration source."

ABC reports that, in at least once case, the group's approvals of CIA techniques continued even after the Justice Department formally withdrew the August 2002 memo in 2004.

Will They Be Held to Account?

Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic that "it remains one of those hidden secrets in Washington that a Democratic Justice Department is going to be very interested in figuring out whether there's a case to be made that senior Bush Administration officials were guilty of war crimes."

But legal blogger Jack Balkin says no way. "[S]ections 8 and 6(b) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 effectively insulated government officials from liability for many of the violations of the War Crimes Act they might have committed during the period prior to 2006. Moreover, as [fellow blogger Martin Lederman] has pointed out, there's a strong argument that a later Justice Department would not prosecute people who reasonably relied on legal advice from a previous Justice Department. . . .

"And putting aside the purely legal obstacles to a prosecution for war crimes, there's also the political cost. Why would an Obama or Clinton Administration waste precious political capital early on with a politically divisive prosecution of former government officials? . . .

"It is not that certain members of the Bush Administration haven't committed war crimes. I'm pretty certain that at least some of them have. The point rather is that it is very unlikely that they will ever be brought to justice for it, at least in our own country-- despite the fact that there are statutes on the books which assert that the commission of war crimes violates our laws. . . .

"As I noted in a previous post, the most likely prosecution for war crimes will not occur in the United States; if it occurs at all, it will come through the use of universal jurisdiction against Bush Administration officials who make the mistake of traveling outside the United States."

About Zubaydah

There's one serious flaw in the ABC report: It allows the administration's version of Zubaydah's value as an intelligence asset to go unrefuted. ABC calls Zubaydah a "top al Qaeda operative" and reports that "[a]ter he was waterboarded, officials say Zubaydah gave up valuable information that led to the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad and fellow 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh."

But as I've written, administration statements about Zubaydah have been almost entirely contradicted by authoritative accounts from author Ron Suskind and New York Times reporter David Johnston.

Zubaydah, it turns out, was a mentally ill minor functionary, nursed back to health by the FBI, who under CIA torture sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

The most valuable information Zubaydah gave investigators about Mohammed was his nickname, which, as Dan Eggen and Dafna Linzer reported in The Washington Post, the CIA had already learned seven months earlier.

Gitmo Watch

When the administration announced in February that it had filed capital murder charges against half a dozen men allegedly linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the message was clear: The White House wanted a 9/11 trial before the end of Bush's term.

But as William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "[T]he Sept. 11 case immediately hit a snag. Military defense lawyers were in short supply, and even now, two months later, not one of the six detainees has met his military lawyer. . . .

"[T]here is a growing consensus among lawyers inside and outside the military that few of those cases are likely to actually come to trial before the end of the Bush administration. . . .

"The road to a trial is difficult in some cases partly because they involve potential death penalties and claims of torture by interrogators, issues that raise thorny legal questions that could take months or longer to sort out. But even comparatively simple cases without capital penalty issues are proceeding slowly."

Bush's Iraq Speech

As expected, Bush at today announced that he is accepting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus's plan to indefinitely suspend the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. Bush said Petraues told him he needed time to consolidate his forces and assess his options, "and I've told him he'll have all the time he needs."

As I wrote in yesterday's column, that officially makes getting out of Iraq the next president's problem.

Bush characterized the past 15 months in Iraq as a significant turnaround and spoke optimistically about the future. (To U.S. troops, he said: "While this war is difficult, it is not endless.") But he had to twist the facts to support his view of reality -- and he made particularly threatening remarks about Iran.

Bush described the recent government offensive in Basra a sign of how "a free Iraq will no longer tolerate the lawlessness by Iranian-backed militants." But what happened in Basra was essentially a battle between rival Shiite groups, and it ended in a bloody standoff.

On Iran, Bush ratcheted up his so-far rhetorical battle with that country's government. Bush said the Iranian government has a choice: It "can live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties, or it can continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran

"If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners."

Was he threatening Iran with attack? Sure sounds that way to me.

Talking about the stakes of the Iraq war, Bush said: "Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al-Qaeda and Iran."

He also asserted a much-disputed connection between Iraq and national security. Responding to criticisms about the cost of the war, Bush said "it is modest -- a modest fraction of our nation's wealth. And it pales when compared to the cost of another terrorist attack on our people." Later, he said that defeat in Iraq would "increase the threat of another terrorist threat on our homeland."

The Troop Rotations

Bush formally announced that, after increasing Army combat tours in Iraq to 15 months to support last year's troop buildup, he will now return them to 12 months. But troops already in Iraq won't be going home any earlier. Also, it's not clear Bush had any choice in the rotation decision.

Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "The move is in response to intense pressure from service commanders who have expressed anxiety about the toll of long deployments on their soldiers and, more broadly, about the U.S. military's ability to confront unanticipated threats. . . .

"Bush's decision will affect only those troops sent to Iraq as of Aug. 1 or later, meaning that those already there still have to complete their 15-month tours. Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, an advocacy group, said that nearly half of the Army's active-duty frontline units are currently deployed for 15 months, and that Bush's decision leaves them out.

"'In short, this is a hollow announcement; it has no immediate effect,' Muller said. 'It is nothing more than political posturing at the expense of our troops. Our soldiers are unraveling and they need their commander in chief to provide immediate relief.'

"House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) applauded Bush's move. 'But it only resets us to where we were last winter,' he added. 'This pace will still wear our troops out.' Ilan Goldenberg, a scholar at the National Security Network, said on a conference call organized by antiwar activists that Bush cannot portray the move as a sign of progress. 'The military is so strained, the president really didn't have a choice,' he said."

After his remarks, Bush headed to his Texas home for a long weekend.

A Democratic Response

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday: "President Bush clings to his talking points that the surge has worked. But he called his plan a 'return on success' -- meaning that if the surge worked, our troops could return home. If we have the success he claims, where is the return? We are stuck in a twilight zone in Iraq.

"When violence is up, the President says we cannot bring our troops home. When violence dips, the President says we cannot bring our troops home.

"It's long past time for the President to be honest with the American people: Under what circumstances could our troops come home? Under what scenario could this war end?

"Based on everything we have heard, we can reach only one conclusion: With 160,000 courageous American troops serving in Iraq, President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man -- himself -- on January 20th, 2009."

Legacy Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "In deciding to leave behind a large presence of U.S. forces in Iraq at the end of his term, President Bush has made clear that he believes he will be doing the next president a favor, with more troops boosting the chances that his successor will inherit a more stable country.

"But many leading Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- worry that the president is squandering a unique opportunity to pressure the Iraqi leaders toward critical political compromises. Democrats, in particular, believe that Bush's decision to embrace Gen. David H. Petraeus's recommendation to postpone further troop withdrawals this summer could backfire, leaving the next commander in chief with an overstretched military and a more intractable political situation inside Iraq. . . .

"The president has frequently talked in public and private about his desire to leave a stable Iraq for his successor, an objective that seemed implausible amid spiraling sectarian violence in 2006. Aides said this impulse animated his decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year and that it colors every aspect of his Iraq policy, from negotiations on the security agreement to efforts to forge political compromises in Iraq.

"But as Petraeus and Crocker suggested in testimony this week, prospects for reaching the president's goal remain ambiguous, given the ongoing violence and the political strife. . . .

"Some Democrats are skeptical of Bush's motives, saying that the president and other Republicans are trying to shift blame when the next president begins a more rapid troop drawdown -- one that will be necessary, they say, to salvage the health of the U.S. armed forces.

"'We all know it's going to happen,' said Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to an eventual troop drawdown. 'He is going to do what Lyndon Johnson did: make sure the war was not lost on his watch.'"

Petraeus and Crocker, Continued

Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "In a second day of Congressional testimony, the commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, left Democrats and some Republicans again frustrated as he steadfastly declined to spell out what more would have to happen on the ground before he would endorse withdrawals to take the number of American troops far below the 140,000 set to remain there after July.

"In almost 20 hours of testimony over two days, General Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq, were much less specific than they were last September in assessing progress, prompting complaints that they presented no clear way for Congress or the American public to judge when or whether more troops might be on their way home."

Opinion Watch

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "The most striking impression of the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was what it lacked: A sense of direction."

Bush's Interview

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol got 40 minutes with Bush in the Oval Office yesterday, and usefully tells his readers that all the best parts were off the record.

"On the record," Kristol writes, "there were, as you'd expect, no great surprises."

Kristol writes that (on the record) Bush said that "at the heart of his speech today 'are a couple of questions . . . two big questions that will be answered. . . . One is, are we good enough to take the 20 [brigades in Iraq] out to 15? The answer is yes. Will [we] . . . take out any more beyond that? And my answer is no. I'm not going to say that. I'm going to say that I agree with David, that we ought to take a look. . . . And do I hope that we can continue 'return on success'? Yes, I do hope so. Do I guarantee it? No, I don't."

As for what they talked about off the record, well, Bush apparently "recounted some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations at the recent NATO summit. He discussed his phone conversation yesterday with Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a previous conversation with Chinese president Hu Jintao about the Olympics, and earlier conversations with Arab leaders about Iran."

And he discussed Tuesday's Medal of Honor ceremony for Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, the Navy SEAL who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades in Ramadi in September 2006.

Kristol writes: "I'll violate the off-the-record rules in order to convey the tenor of the president's lengthy response. He explained how difficult it had been for him to keep his composure. This was especially the case, he said, when he was congratulating and comforting Petty Officer Mansoor's parents (this was evident on television). What wasn't evident on the telecast was that when the president was reading his remarks and looked up at the audience, he saw the Navy SEALs assembled in the East Room, to a man, weeping. That's when, the president said, he really had to steel himself to retain his composure. . . .

"And he had a certain amount of steel in his voice when he then reiterated his determination not to allow the sacrifices of our fighting men and women to have been made in vain."

An Alternate View

Phillip Carter, whose Intel Dump blog has moved to washingtonpost.com, writes: "Within the military, we decorate our heroes (and Monsoor certainly is one) to reward their bravery and establish their example as one we might aspire to. Monsoor's actions deserve our admiration and awe.

"I am deeply disturbed, however, by the White House's unfortunate decision to hold this ceremony on April 8, 2008 -- the same day as the Petraeus and Crocker testimony before Congress. The timing of this ceremony could not have been accidental. It was clearly a political maneuver; an attempt to leverage the personal valor of Petty Officer Monsoor for political gain. That is wrong. Petty Officer Monsoor's sacrifice and valor are worthy of their own day -- not one designed for maximum political advantage."

On 'Proofiness' and 'Prepostrophes'

In my Live Online yesterday, I asked readers to help me describe an argument that is irrefutable -- and yet completely absurd. As I wrote: "The ultimate example, in my mind, was when Bush argued that Saddam Hussein's refusal to disclose his WMD meant that he had them. If you accepted the logic of that charge -- and it seems like almost everybody did -- then there was no way for Saddam to prove he didn't have WMD, even though that was in fact the case."

I wrote about seeing echoes of this sort of illogic in the arguments by Petraeus and Crocker yesterday: If things are going badly, we have to stay; but if things are going well, we have to stay.

Readers came through in a big way.

Several suggested "Catch-22 logic," which seems to capture it quite nicely.

Reader Kris Unger had several fun ideas: "Disthetical? Pseudo-coherent? Nontological?"

Another reader suggested: "Circulundrum, from circular and conundrum."

And a real winner: "How's 'proofiness' for your word?" I think Stephen Colbert should add that one to his lexicon.

Some readers provided other examples of the tactic in question. For instance; "History will vindicate him -- and no matter how long history does not vindicate him, he can always say, well, history isn't over yet." Or: "[W]hen there was a surplus and the economy was good, we needed a tax cut; when economy went bad, we needed a tax cut. They have solutions that are universal to any problem."

Another priceless comment from the chat: "When my son was in third grade, he was sharing what he'd been learning about punctuation. He invented a new one that our family frequently uses as a sort of quotation mark for dubious statements: the 'prepostrophe.'"

The Colombia Fight

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "A drive by President Bush to win passage of a modest trade deal with Colombia erupted Wednesday into an angry partisan confrontation between the White House and House Democrats, with both sides using trade as a surrogate for an election-year battle over jobs, national security and the sinking economy.

"The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, took the White House by surprise when she announced plans Wednesday to block a vote on the Colombia accord. The move effectively holds the measure hostage until Mr. Bush agrees to more economic relief for Americans."

Paul Kane and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "After Pelosi's announcement, the administration organized a series of fierce rebuttals to the Democrats' tactic."

Housing Watch

Maura Reynolds and Tiffany Hsu write in the Los Angeles Times: "With the Senate poised to take new action on the mortgage crisis and the House at work on far more sweeping proposals, the Bush White House is grudgingly giving ground on its ideological opposition to government intervention in the marketplace.

"After months of reluctance to pressure lenders to write down the principal on troubled mortgages, the administration announced Wednesday that it is now willing to do just that.

"Expanding an existing program, the Federal Housing Administration will allow borrowers who are behind on their payments and owe more on their homes than they are worth to refinance with a federally insured loan.

"Given the more aggressive proposals in Congress, however, further concessions probably lie ahead."

A Moment of Accommodation

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday reached across traditional political dividing lines to sign into law a broad program that provides federal grants for assistance to ex-convicts, pointing to his own struggle with alcohol addiction as an example of redemption."

The Common Theme?

Greg Hitt and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Congressional Democrats served notice they will seek to frustrate President Bush's agenda on a broad array of issues, including Iraq funding and free trade, as part of a strategy to wrest concessions from a weakened administration."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart reviews Tuesday's testimony by Petraeus and Crocker, with some video clips:

Stewart: "But let's just cut the chase, Petraeus. When are you going to recommend force reduction? And if you could, phrase your answer in the form of a circle."

Petraeus: "When the assessment is at a point that the conditions are met to recommend reduction of forces, then that's what we would do."

Stewart: "OK. . . . So what is the criterion for the assessment?"

Crocker: "When Iraq gets to a point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces."

Stewart: "So the troops can be withdrawn at the point when the conditions for withdrawability are met. And at what point would those conditions be met?"

Petraeus: "When the conditions are met is when that point is."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Chan Lowe, John Sherffius and Nick Anderson on exit signs; Jim Morin on the lack of a paddle; Rex Babin on the Clash; Stuart Carlson on the Catch-22.

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