Pack of Liars

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 12, 2008; 12:48 PM

Yesterday's bipartisan Senate report on the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere doesn't just lay out a clear line of responsibility starting with President Bush, it also exposes the administration's repeated explanation for what happened as a pack of lies.

"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own," the report finds. "The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

The report notes that in early 2002, not long after the Defense Department legal counsel's office started exploring the application of the sorts of abhorrent practices later documented at Abu Ghraib, Bush signed a memo exempting war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions. "[T]he decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody," the report states.

And the report concludes: "The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely."

In a statement, Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin voiced his contempt for what was essentially an administration cover-up: "Attempts by senior officials to portray [the bad apples scenario] to be the case while shrugging off any responsibility for abuses are both unconscionable and false. Our investigation is an effort to set the record straight on this chapter in our history that has so damaged both America's standing and our security. America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost."

As examples of false statements, Levin offered: "In May 2004, just after the pictures from Abu Ghraib became public, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the abuses depicted were simply the result of a few 'bad apples' and that those responsible for abuse would be held accountable. More than seven months later, then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked about accountability for detainee abuses, Gonzales said 'we care very much about finding out what happened and holding people accountable.' Neither of those two statements was true."

But Levin could have gone much higher. Bush himself repeatedly and sanctimoniously blamed Abu Ghraib on a small number of low-level perpetrators, even while trying to get credit for what he insisted was a transparent system that held those who were responsible accountable.

Bush, on May 24, 2004, described what happened at Abu Ghraib as "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

On June 1, 2004, he told a reporter: "Obviously, it was a shameful moment when we saw on our TV screens that soldiers took it upon themselves to humiliate Iraqi prisoners -- because it doesn't reflect the nature of the American people, or the nature of the men and women in our uniform. And what the world will see is that we will handle this matter in a very transparent way, that there will be rule of law -- which is an important part of any democracy. And there will be transparency, which is a second important part of a democracy. And people who have done wrong will be held to account for the world to see.

"That will stand -- this process will stand in stark contrast to what would happen under a tyrant. You would never know about the abuses in the first place. And if you did know about the abuses, you certainly wouldn't see any process to correct them."

In a May 18, 2004, interview, Bush told an Iraqi journalist: "I want to know the truth, too. . . . [Y]ou've just got to know that I'm interested in the truth, as well, just like you're interested in the truth."

And by April 6, 2006, after seven soldiers had been convicted, Bush made it clear that his quest was over: "I'm proud to report that the people who made that decision are being brought to justice, and there was a full investigation over why something like that could have happened."

By contrast, yesterday's Senate report suggests that those responsible for the abuse have emphatically not been brought to justice, and that there's more investigating to be done. Among the issues still to be addressed: the CIA interrogation program, which even more overtly included techniques commonly considered to be torture, such as waterboarding. There's also the obvious question that comes to mind after considering the sequence of events: How are these not war crimes?

The Coverage

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "The physical and mental abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was the direct result of Bush administration detention policies and should not be dismissed as the work of bad guards or interrogators, according to a bipartisan Senate report released Thursday.

"The Senate Armed Services Committee report concludes that harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA and the U.S. military were directly adapted from the training techniques used to prepare special forces personnel to resist interrogation by enemies that torture and abuse prisoners. The techniques included forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, and until 2003, waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning."

Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan panel of senators has concluded that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere.

"In the most comprehensive critique by Congress of the military's interrogation practices, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report yesterday that accuses Rumsfeld and his deputies of being the authors and chief promoters of harsh interrogation policies that disgraced the nation and undermined U.S. security. The report, released by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contends that Pentagon officials later tried to create a false impression that the policies were unrelated to acts of detainee abuse committed by members of the military. . . .

"The report is the most direct refutation to date of the administration's rationale for using aggressive interrogation tactics -- that inflicting humiliation and pain on detainees was legal and effective, and helped protect the country. The 25-member panel, without one dissent among the 12 Republican members, declared the opposite to be true.

"The administration's policies and the resulting controversies, the panel concluded, 'damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.' . . .

"White House officials have maintained that the measures were approved in response to demands from field officers who complained that traditional interrogation methods were not working on some of the more hardened captives.

"But Senate investigators said the seeds of the policy originated in a Feb. 7, 2002, memo signed by President Bush declaring that the Geneva Conventions, which outline standards for the humane treatment of detainees, did not apply to captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. As early as that spring, top administration officials, including then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, participated in meetings where the use of coercive measures was discussed, the panel said, drawing on a statement by Rice released this year."

Here's more from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers.

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball dig into the supporting documents and write for Newsweek: "The Bush administration approved the use of 'waterboarding' on Al Qaeda detainees after receiving reports from government psychologists that it was '100 percent effective' in breaking the will of U.S. military personnel subjected to the technique during training, according to documents released today by a Senate Committee. . . .

"'Use of the watering board resulted in student capitulation and compliance 100 percent of the time,' wrote Jerald F. Ogrisseg, the Air Force's chief of psychology services, in a July 24, 2002 memo released as part of the Senate report. . . .

"Much of the report, including the role top White House officials played in approving such methods, is based on material made public in two previous hearings by Levin's panel and other government reports. But it also includes some recently declassified documents, as well as new evidence showing how critical the use of SERE methods was in persuading senior officials to adopt interrogation techniques the U.S. government previously found strongly objectionable."

More Highlights From the Report

The report also chronicles how detainee policy was enabled by officials in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, after consultation with Vice President Cheney's formidable legal counsel, David Addington.

"Those OLC opinions distorted the meaning and intent of anti-torture laws, rationalized the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody and influenced Department of Defense determinations as to what interrogation techniques were legal for use during interrogations conducted by U.S. military personnel," the report says.

And it documents how military lawyers within the Pentagon tried desperately to raise concerns about the new rules -- even going so far as to explicitly warn that they might violated torture statutes -- but that their dissent was repeatedly quashed.


From the American Civil Liberties Union's response to the report: "For nearly four years, the ACLU has led the charge in calling for an independent criminal investigation into the interrogation techniques used by the federal government against detainees held by the United States. Based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation brought by the ACLU, several congressional hearings, and this latest committee report, it is clear that important decisions on the use of torture and abuse were made in the White House, at the Pentagon, and at the headquarters of the CIA and the Justice Department.

"'The committee report makes clear the role of top White House and Defense Department officials in authorizing torture and abuse,' added Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. 'It also includes a startling new fact, which is that a top Defense Department official was inquiring into methods of torture and abuse more than a month before President Bush ordered that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to the detainees. There is now a whole new question that an independent prosecutor should investigate on whether the president's order taking away Geneva Conventions protections was part of a scheme to engage in illegal torture that was already being explored.'

"'The committee report compiles a long list of activity during the eight months preceding the infamous Justice Department torture memos; the question for a special prosecutor should be whether the memos were guidance for future interrogations or were they a ploy to try to get out of torture crimes that already had been committed,' Anders continued. 'Senators Levin and McCain courageously put out their just-the-facts report, but it is now up to President-elect Obama to have his new attorney general appoint an outside prosecutor to investigate whether any of those facts constituted crimes.'"

And law professor Jack Balkin blogs: "This report is the beginning of a necessary process of bringing to light repeated abuses condoned or encouraged at the very highest levels of government. . . .

"We need a full accounting of what top officials did to abuse their powers and bring shame on our country. It is necessary to ensure that these abuses never happen again, especially in a country that prides itself on the promotion of human rights around the world."

Midnight Regulation Watch

Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "Just six weeks before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, the Bush administration issued revised endangered species regulations Thursday to reduce the input of federal scientists and to block the law from being used to fight global warming.

"The changes, which will go into effect in about 30 days, were completed in just four months. But they could take Obama much longer to reverse.

"They will eliminate some of the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have performed for 35 years on dams, power plants, timber sales and other projects, a step that developers and other federal agencies have blamed for delays and cost increases.

"The rules also prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effect on endangered species and the places they live from a project's contribution to increased global warming.

"Interior Department officials described the changes as 'narrow,' but admitted that the regulations were controversial inside the agency. Environmentalists viewed them as eroding the protections for endangered species."

Felicity Barringer writes in the New York Times: "The rule, quickly challenged by environmental groups, lets the Army Corps of Engineers or the Federal Highway Administration in many cases rely on their own personnel in deciding what impact a project would have on a fish, bird, plant, animal or insect protected under the Endangered Species Act."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "Congressional Democrats and environmentalists sharply criticized the administration for the Interior Department action.

"'As the Bush administration fades off into the sunset, it continues to take brazen pot shots at everything in sight, including America's landmark conservation law, the Endangered Species Act,' said House Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), who said he would introduce legislation seeking to overturn the rule next year.

"Separately yesterday, Interior issued a finding limiting the protections that could be invoked to protect polar bears, which were listed as a threatened species this year, on the grounds that the bears are already protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. The finding means that the bears' protected status could not be used to block activities such as oil and gas development outside their Alaska habitat."

Columnist Patt Morrison blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "So, is George Bush Russian? Because the last time I remember hearing of scorched-earth on this scale, it was 1812, and the Russians did it to beggar and starve the invading French Army.

"But in this case, Bush is doing it to his own country, his own people, his own earth."

But wait, there's more.

Matt Madia reports for OMB Watch that "the Department of the Interior officially unveiled its final rule that will make it legal for mining companies to dump into rivers and streams the waste generated during mountaintop mining. (More here.) The rule is slated for publication in the Federal Register tomorrow and will likely take effect Jan. 11, 2009 -- a little over a week before Barack Obama takes office."

And there are other ways, besides rule changes, for the Bush administration to complicate the Obama presidency at the last minute.

Jay Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration plans to sign its first nuclear-cooperation agreement with a Middle Eastern nation within the next few weeks, according to a senior U.S. official, raising concerns among congressional critics who say the deal could fuel nuclear proliferation in the region.

"The proposed deal with the United Arab Emirates has attracted attention because the U.A.E.'s largest trading partner is Iran. The U.A.E. has served in the past as a transshipment point for technology with military applications headed to Iran.

"The move could place President-elect Barack Obama in a political tight spot with a Middle East ally by forcing him to decide whether to push Congress to ratify the agreement. He hasn't taken an official position on the deal. An Obama spokesman declined to comment. The Bush administration has championed the nuclear agreement with the U.A.E. as a model for promoting peaceful nuclear energy while guarding against weapons proliferation."

Cars Watch

David Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "The Senate on Thursday night abandoned efforts to fashion a government rescue of the American automobile industry, as Senate Republicans refused to support a bill endorsed by the White House and Congressional Democrats. . . .

"The failure in Congress to provide a financial lifeline for G.M. and Chrysler was a bruising defeat for President Bush in the waning weeks of his term, and also for President-elect Barack Obama, who earlier on Thursday urged Congress to act to avoid a further loss of jobs in an already deeply debilitated economy."

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "'It's disappointing that Congress failed to act tonight,' the White House said in a statement. 'We think the legislation we negotiated provided an opportunity to use funds already appropriated for automakers and presented the best chance to avoid a disorderly bankruptcy while ensuring taxpayer funds only go to firms whose stakeholders were prepared to make difficult decisions to become viable.'"

Manu Raju writes for Politico: "Administration officials have been warning for weeks that failure to pass the bill could lead to an even deeper recession.

"That was the message Vice President Dick Cheney brought to a closed-door Senate GOP lunch Wednesday, reportedly warning that it'll be 'Herbert Hoover' time if aid to the industry was rejected, according to a senator familiar with the remarks. A Cheney spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the vice president's remarks."

Jay Newton-Small writes for Time that Senate Democrats and Republicans "have now effectively handed the hot-button issue to the person they all believe should have dealt with it in the first place, President George W. Bush. . . .

"The White House had been deadset against Democrats' original entreaties to use money from the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program, known as TARP, passed by Congress in September to stabilize the teetering banking system, but now it may have no choice."

Indeed, the Associated Press reports this morning: "The White House says it is considering using the Wall Street rescue fund to prevent U.S. automakers from failing.

"President George W. Bush's press secretary says it would be 'irresponsible' to further weaken the economy by letting the Detroit car companies fail. Dana Perino says the White House normally would prefer to let the financial markets determine the companies' fate.

"But she says that given the economy's shape, the White House will consider other options if necessary to prevent the automakers' collapse -- and that could mean using money from the $700 billion Wall Street rescue."

Face Time

Bush invited the top two members of The Washington Post editorial board to sit in on his chat with dissident bloggers on Wednesday, and got a nice nod in return.

Jackson Diehl writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "By now it's commonplace for pundits like me to point out that President Bush has come nowhere close to fulfilling the promise of his second inaugural address, which was that he would commit his government to the spread of freedom and the defense of democratic dissidents around the world. . . .

"There is, however, one important way in which the president has been faithful to his cause -- and one practice he has pioneered that ought to outlast him. Throughout the past several years, Bush has gone out of his way to meet personally with advocates for democratic change around the world -- especially those under pressure from their governments. . . .

"On Wednesday, in honor of the 60th Human Rights Day, Bush did it one more time, inviting dissident bloggers from China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Egypt and Venezuela to the White House's Roosevelt Room (the last two attended via videoconference). For an hour, the president listened as the bloggers described how they attempt to circumvent state censorship to disseminate news and organize pressure for change on the Internet. His purpose, he said, was 'to honor, herald and highlight the brave souls who are on the front lines -- and that's you.' . . .

"Bush, a practitioner of policy-by-personal-connection both for good and for ill, would clearly like to see the next president similarly commit himself. That's probably why he invited me and my colleague Fred Hiatt to Wednesday's meeting: After directing a jibe at us for our criticism of his freedom agenda failures, he said he hoped his successor would come under no less pressure to support democratic dissidents. He's right: On this at least, Barack Obama should follow Bush's example."

Bush Library Watch

The Associated Press reports: "George W. Bush's presidential library domain name has been retrieved after a Web developing company accidentally let it expire -- and it apparently came at a high price.

"Raleigh, N.C.-based Illuminati Karate paid less than $10 for the GeorgeWBushLibrary.com domain name and sold it back earlier this year for $35,000 to the library's contracted Web developers, Yuma Solutions, said George Huger, lead Web developer for Illuminati Karate."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "The bad news for Governor Blagojevich is that there's no chance President Bush will pardon him because Bush can't even pronounce his name. . . .

"In a recent interview with ABC, President Bush said he is not a literalist when it comes to the Bible -- or the Constitution either, for that matter."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's sacrifice.

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