White House Ignored Torture Warnings

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 21, 2008; 12:55 PM

Top White House officials waved off early warnings from the FBI that interrogation tactics being used on detainees might be illegal, according to a new report from the Justice Department's inspector general.

The report states that FBI personnel started notifying headquarters as early as 2002 that other government employees were using abusive tactics -- including sexual humiliation, prolonged hand-to-foot shackling and exposure to extreme temperatures -- on detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Justice officials conveyed some of these concerns in at least one White House meeting in 2003, but the White House apparently ignored them. A year later, the revelation of similar abuses at Abu Ghraib became a source of everlasting shame for American citizens, a serious blow to the United States's moral authority, and a potent rallying cry for the nation's enemies.

That the White House ignored the FBI's red flags is not really surprising, considering that as of Spring 2002, top Bush aides including Vice President Cheney were reportedly micromanaging the torture of terrorist suspects from the White House basement. In other words, those aides -- depending in large part on secret and since-withdrawn memos from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel for cover -- intentionally and specifically approved some of the tactics that alarmed the FBI.

But knowing that the nation's top law-enforcement officials put senior White House aides on notice that the interrogation tactics they had approved were potentially illegal adds a key element to the portrait of complicity in what could someday be prosecuted as violations of U.S. torture statutes or even war crimes.

The Coverage

Carrie Johnson and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "Complaints by FBI agents about abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. military sites reached the National Security Council but prompted no effort to curb questioning that the agents considered ineffective and possibly illegal, according to an internal audit released yesterday.

"Reports that Guantanamo detainees were being subjected to extreme temperatures, religious abuses and nude interrogation were conveyed at White House meetings of senior officials in 2003, yet these questionable tactics remained in use, a lengthy report by the Justice Department's inspector general concluded.

"In one instance, colleagues of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft reported that he personally aired concerns about Defense Department strategy toward a particular detainee with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, while other Justice managers shared similar fears with the council's legal adviser in November 2003, the report said.

"Ashcroft declined to be interviewed by investigators, so it remains uncertain how aggressively he pressed the issue, according to the report. Other senior Justice officials told investigators that no changes were made in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay even after these and other complaints filtered up to the National Security Council."

Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "In 2002, as evidence of prisoner mistreatment at Guant¿namo Bay began to mount, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents at the base created a 'war crimes file' to document accusations against American military personnel, but were eventually ordered to close down the file, a Justice Department report revealed Tuesday. . . .

"The report says that the F.B.I. agents took their concerns to higher-ups, but that their concerns often fell on deaf ears: officials at senior levels at the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council were all made aware of the F.B.I. agents' complaints, but little appears to have been done as a result.

"The report quotes passionate objections from F.B.I. officials who grew increasingly concerned about the reports of practices like intimidating inmates with snarling dogs, parading them in the nude before female soldiers, or 'short-shackling' them to the floor for many hours in extreme heat or cold.

"Such tactics, said one F.B.I. agent in an e-mail message to supervisors in November 2002, might violate American law banning torture."

Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "'The White House, the Defense Department, and the CIA were ignoring advice that was coming from people who were charged with enforcement of the law,' said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union."

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The long awaited 370-page Justice report on the abuse issue may be the most authoritative public account yet on the fierce internal struggles within the Bush administration over how terror suspects should be interrogated. . . .

"The clashes first arose in March 2002 after [Abu] Zubaydah -- allegedly Al Qaeda's logistics chief -- was captured in a gunfight in Pakistan and was severely wounded. He was then taken to a secret CIA facility for medical treatment and interrogation, according to the report.

"At first, the report states, two FBI agents were permitted to question Zubaydah, assisted in his treatment and developed his trust, using the bureau's traditional 'rapport-building' techniques of interrogation. This soon led to a breakthrough in which a newly cooperating Zubaydah identified a photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the operative known as 'Muktar' who was the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

"But within a few days, CIA interrogators showed up on the scene, dismissed what Zubaydah was giving the FBI as 'throw-away information' and began aggressive new interrogation techniques.

"(Although the specific techniques are blacked out in the public version of the Justice report, agency officials have since confirmed that, among other methods, he was subjected to waterboarding -- a technique that involves strapping a detainee to a board and dousing him with a wet towel in an effort to simulate drowning.) When one of the FBI agents questioned the use of the techniques, he was told by the CIA interrogators at the scene that the methods were approved 'at the highest levels' and that he would not get in trouble."

Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that the report "is likely to bolster calls in Congress for the Bush administration to more fully account for legal opinions that led to the alleged abuses. Congressional Democrats and some Republicans have called on the White House to withdraw objections to legislation that would explicitly ban the CIA from using the types of interrogations that critics consider torture. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said 'the abuse of prisoners is not and has never been U.S. policy.' . . .

"New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of a House subcommittee investigating interrogation practices, said the report adds to questions about whether senior White House officials approved of tactics now discredited. 'It is time for the key architects of this policy to be held accountable,' he said."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said in a statement: "While I take comfort in knowing that, for the most part, FBI field agents followed the agency's policies regarding interrogations, I find it very disturbing that many senior FBI and DOJ officials failed to take strong action after identifying interrogation abuses. It is my hope that upcoming testimony before our committee from David Addington, John C. Yoo, John Ashcroft, Daniel Levin, and Douglas Feith will help me understand better why these gaps in policy existed and whether Congress needs to take further action."

Iran Watch

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "The White House sharply criticized a news organization on Tuesday for the second time in two days over reports about administration policy toward Iran, dismissing an Israeli report that President Bush was preparing to order an attack on Iran before leaving office in eight months.

"The White House released a statement disputing a report in The Jerusalem Post that a senior administration official had told Israelis during the president's visit last week that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney supported military action against Iran. . . .

"The statement, following an even angrier attack on NBC the day before, appeared to reflect a heightened sensitivity to what Mr. Bush's aides view as mischaracterizations of his intentions in confronting Iran over its pursuit of nuclear enrichment, its involvement in Iraq and its support of the militant Islamic groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian areas.

"While Mr. Bush rarely minces words when discussing Iran, his recent speeches, including an address before Israel's Parliament last week, have been particularly pointed, including unequivocal denunciations and historical allusions to Nazi Germany.

"Those remarks have reverberated through the American presidential campaign and again heightened speculation that the administration might be prepared to resort to force to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear activities."

Laura Rozen blogs for Mother Jones that the Jerusalem Post report was "lousy journalism . . . third hand in terms of sourcing, and all anonymous at that."

At yesterday's press briefing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino repeatedly insisted that the administration's policy remains "to work with our international allies on a multilateral way to get the Iranians through diplomatic means, bringing economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on the Iranians to get them to change their behavior so that we could sit down at the table with them."

But it's worth noting that she didn't actually deny that a conversation like the one the Jerusalem Post reported took place -- or even that it could have.

Q. "Dana, it doesn't -- you don't deny the premise of the Post article, the Jerusalem Post article, which was that a senior U.S. official said that the President and Vice President were of the opinion that military action is called for in Iran?"

Perino: "I have no knowledge of anybody saying that to anybody in Israel, no. . . ."

Q. "What about the substance of it, though? Do the President and the Vice President feel that an attack is called for -- whether someone said that in Israel, or not?"

Perino: "Keith, I feel that I just answered that question when I talked about what our policy is."

Q. "Can you answer yes or no to that?"

Perino: "I just told -- said what our policy is and that our preference is to solve this diplomatically. And that's what we're trying to do."

Q. "But that doesn't answer the question."

Perino: "It does answer the question, that that is what we are working with our allies to do. But the President has said -- what I'm saying today in response to the Jerusalem Post is nothing different than from what has been said at this podium for a couple of years now."

Q. "But it's not quite an answer, because everyone's preference is always for peace, but someone could still think that an attack may be called for."

Another reporter then pointed out: "Look, skepticism seems warranted here, because in the run-up to the war in 2003, the line was officially that negotiations were still called for and that there was no decision to attack, when, in fact, subsequent reporting has shown that there probably was a decision to attack well before the attack took place. So why shouldn't we be skeptical of the claim that there's no intention to bomb Iran?"

Perino: "Bill, you can be as skeptical as you want to be. I stated what our policy is, and I don't have anything else that I can give you. I'm not going to be able to -- if you're going to be a skeptic, that's your right -- you're fourth estate, go for it."

President vs. Peacock, Continued

I wrote in yesterday's column about the White House's new feud with NBC.

Thinkprogress.org reports: "Appearing on Glenn Beck's radio show [Tuesday], [White House Counselor Ed] Gillespie continued to attack NBC. When Beck asked why conservatives continue to appear on the network, Gillespie replied, 'It is beyond me frankly.'"

Middle East Watch

Christopher Dickey writes in his Newsweek column: "President George W. Bush concluded his Good and Evil Tour of the Middle East on Sunday with a fiery sermon in Sinai. And if he wasn't in a position to hand down commandments like those delivered to Moses, it wasn't for want of trying. Even a Republican congressman was overheard saying that he found Bush's tone 'arrogant.' . . .

"Each of Bush's commandments, on its face, made sense. In fact, few if any in the audience of 1,500 men and women would disagree with him on general principles. The problem is the Bush administration's record of turning good ideas into horrible realities in the past, and deep pessimism in the Middle East about the possibilities he has left open for the future.

"Looking at Iraq, the peace process, Lebanon, the growing strength of Iran, the continued deterioration of Somalia, the potential disintegration of Sudan, not to mention the vast decline in the value of the dollar and the faltering global economy, the participants at the forum knew only too well they were halfway to hell on roads paved with George W. Bush's good intentions."

Appeasement Watch

Martin Schram writes in his Scripps Howard News Service opinion column about Bush likening those who support diplomatic talks with our enemies to Hitler's appeasers: "Bush used his own heavy hand to try to do to Barack Obama what was done to John Kerry and Al Gore, and (of course) John McCain -- without leaving any traceable fingerprints, back in Bush's good old days when [Karl] Rove was masterminding his politics of defeat through destruction."

Schram also criticizes the lame performance of the White House press corps after "White House officials denied on-the-record what they had said on background had been true" -- that Obama was an intended target.

EPA Watch

David Whitney writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The head of the Environmental Protection Agency refused to say Tuesday whether he had any specific discussions with President Bush that would have caused him to reverse his agency's position and deny a waiver California needed to move ahead with stringent auto emission standards.

"The appearance of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee came a day after the panel's Democrats released a report saying Johnson was willing to go along with California's Clean Air Act waiver until he was told by the White House that it didn't support that decision. . . .

"Under questioning by Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., who was concerned about whether automakers worked through Vice President Dick Cheney to press their opposition to the California waiver, Johnson was as specific as he ever got at the hearing.

"'I don't recall any' pressure from Cheney, Johnson said."

How Close an Embrace?

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times: "When John McCain visited the White House in March to receive the endorsement of George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate said he would be glad to campaign alongside the president anywhere in the US -- provided Mr Bush could find time in his 'busy schedule'.

"It has come as a surprise to no one that the two have not been seen together since.

"With an approval rating of 28 per cent -- close to record lows for a US president -- Mr Bush is considered an electoral liability for the Republican party in November.

"'The easiest way for McCain to lose the election is to allow the Democrats to tie him to Bush,' says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia."

Commencement Watch

Meg Kinnard writes for the Associated Press from Columbia, S.C.: "Some faculty members at Furman University have suggested they won't attend graduation ceremonies because President Bush is scheduled to speak, but a group of conservative students wants the university to step in and block the protest.

"Bush is scheduled to give Furman's graduation speech May 31 at the fairly conservative school of 2,625 undergraduate students with Baptist roots.

"More than 500 members of the Furman community signed a letter released Monday asking that administrators refuse to allow faculty members to skip ceremonies in protest of the Bush visit. The move comes after more than 200 students and faculty members signed a statement earlier this month criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and environmental issues."

Cheney speaks today at an even safer location: the Coast Guard Academy graduation in New London, Conn.

Bush's European Tour

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush, traveling abroad more this year than at any time of his presidency, plans to head to Europe in June to confer with allies on matters of war, terrorism and trade.

"The White House on Tuesday confirmed the outline of Bush's trip, which uses the U.S.-European Union summit in Slovenia as a launching point. The president will then travel to Germany, Italy, France, England and Northern Ireland. While in Italy, the president will visit the Vatican.

"The trip is scheduled to run from June 9-16."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "President Bush is back from his big trip to the Middle East. He went over to Saudi Arabia to talk to them about the high price of gasoline. And while he was there, the price went up eight cents a gallon. Doing a hell of a job, Bushy... In fact, when President Bush spoke in the Middle East, he reminded the Saudis that, sooner or later, they'd run out of oil. And they said, 'Yeah, but not before you run out of money.'"

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on appeasement; Mike Keefe on Bush's G.I. Bill; Chip Bok on Bush head games; and Ann Telnaes on the Bush/Cheney drumbeat.

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