The Reality of Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 12:57 PM

President Bush and Vice President Cheney would like you to believe that only a few left-wingers think the Bush administration's treatment of detainees amounted to torture.

But the real fringe group is the motley assortment of enablers, enforcers and apologists who still maintain that it didn't.

The reality-based community gains another prominent member this morning, as Bob Woodward writes in The Washington Post: "The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a 'life-threatening condition.'

"'We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,' said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. 'His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case' for prosecution.

"Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.

"Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani's health led to her conclusion. 'The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge' to call it torture, she said. . . .

"The harsh techniques used against Qahtani, she said, were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. 'A lot of this happened on his watch,' she said. Last month, a Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded that 'Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.' The committee found the interrogation techniques harsh and abusive but stopped short of calling them torture."

What's particularly significant about Qahtani's treatment being recognized as torture is that senior White House officials -- most notably vice presidential aide David Addington -- had a direct role in devising it.

In Vanity Fair in May, Phillipe Sands wrote: "On September 25, [2002] as the process of elaborating new interrogation techniques reached a critical point, a delegation of the administration's most senior lawyers arrived at Guantanamo. The group included the president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzales . . . ; Vice President Cheney's lawyer, David Addington . . . ; the C.I.A.'s John Rizzo . . . ; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld's counsel. They were all well aware of al-Qahtani. 'They wanted to know what we were doing to get to this guy,' [the former military commander at Guantanamo, Major General Michael E. Dunlavey] told me, 'and Addington was interested in how we were managing it.' I asked what they had to say. 'They brought ideas with them which had been given from sources in D.C.,' Dunlavey said. . . .

"[Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate at Guantanamo,] confirmed the account of the visit. Addington talked a great deal, and it was obvious to her that he was a 'very powerful man' and 'definitely the guy in charge,' with a booming voice and confident style. Gonzales was quiet. Haynes, a friend and protege of Addington's, seemed especially interested in the military commissions, which were to decide the fate of individual detainees. They met with the intelligence people and talked about new interrogation methods. They also witnessed some interrogations. Beaver spent time with the group. Talking about the episode even long afterward made her visibly anxious. Her hand tapped and she moved restlessly in her chair. She recalled the message they had received from the visitors: Do 'whatever needed to be done.' That was a green light from the very top -- the lawyers for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the C.I.A.'"

The details of Qahtani's abusive treatment actually became public back in June 2005, when Adam Zagorin and Michael Duffy of Time magazine published an article based on the "interrogation log" of "Detainee 063," spanning 50 days from November 2002 to early January 2003.

In other Guantanamo news, Peter Finn writes today in The Washington Post: "A former military prosecutor said in a declaration filed in federal court yesterday that the system of handling evidence against detainees at Guantanamo Bay was so chaotic that it was impossible to prepare a fair and successful prosecution.

"Darrel Vandeveld, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, filed the declaration in support of a petition seeking the release of Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan who has been held at the military prison for six years. Jawad was a juvenile when he was detained in Kabul in 2002 after a grenade attack that severely wounded two U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their interpreter.

"Vandeveld, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the lead prosecutor against Jawad until he asked to be relieved of his duties last year, citing a crisis of conscience. He said the case has been riddled with problems, including alleged physical and psychological abuse of Jawad by Afghan police and the U.S. military, as well as reliance on evidence that was later found to be missing, false or unreliable.

"Vandeveld said in a phone interview that the 'complete lack of organization' affected nearly all cases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The evidence is often so disorganized, he said, 'it was like a stash of documents found in a village in a raid and just put on a plane to the U.S. Not even rudimentary organization by date or name.'"

Cheney's View

Here's Cheney on Guantanamo just yesterday morning, in an interview with right-wing talk-show host Bill Bennett: "Guantanamo is sort of a symbol I guess to the left in this country and maybe to some of our critics overseas. But the fact is it's a very well-run facility. The Red Cross is down there all the time checking on it; reporters are free to go down, members of Congress and so forth, to look at it and see what kind of facility it is. And the fact is it's first-rate."

Pardon Watch

Just before Christmas, Bush pardoned 19 anonymous-sounding felons. One of them was a predatory real-estate developer who hired a former White House lawyer to take his request directly to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. When the New York Daily News and others reported that the man's relatives had recently contributed more than $40,000 to Republicans, Bush took a unexpected step: He revoked the man's pardon.

George Lardner Jr. writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "The about-face has sparked questions about whether there was precedent for Bush's action and whether it could stand. . . .

"To be sure, there is scant precedent for Bush's flat revocation. But one case is strongly in his favor."

Lardner describes how incoming president Ulysses S. Grant revoked a "highly suspicious pardons that President Andrew Johnson granted on his last day in office to a double-dealing father and son involved in New York City whiskey scandals in which Johnson himself was, at best, an unwitting ally."

Grant ruled that he could do so because the pardons had not yet been delivered and accepted. Indeed, the Supreme Court later ruled that delivery is essential to the validity of a pardon, "and delivery is not complete without acceptance."

Why is this relevant to us today?

Well, speculation is pretty intense in Washington that Bush will issue a raft of pardons in his last few days or hours -- including some potentially controversial ones. Cheney is said to be lobbying hard for Bush to fully pardon Scooter Libby, the former vice presidential aide whose conviction in the Valerie Plame case still stands despite Bush's commutation of his sentence.

There's also the possibility that Bush will issue some sort of blanket, preemptive pardon to members of his own administration.

What this pardon-revocation precedent suggests is that if Bush truly waits until the last minute to issue his pardons -- and they haven't actually been delivered and accepted by the time Obama takes office -- the new president could revoke them.

Similarly, if acceptance is required, then it seems Obama should be able to revoke any preemptive blanket pardon in its entirety, as long as no one had specifically invoked it.

Bush Stays Mum

Bush has repeatedly refused to speculate on pardons, most recently last night on CNN with Larry King.

King: "Pardons; are we going to have some? You are not going to be specific. Will pardons come?

Bush: "I am not going to talk about them."

King: "Why? They're logical."

Bush: "Because I don't feel like talking about them and I'm not going to. If there are any coming, you will find out about it in due course."

King: "Due course, meaning you have a week."

Laura Bush: "Exactly. You will find out soon."

Bush: "Actually less."

King: "So it will be less than a week."

Bush: "Yes."

King: "You don't have to? It's not required?"

Bush: "No."

King: "You don't have to do any pardons?"

Bush: "I don't have to do any. I can do some. Nor do I have to talk about it."

But Susan Page and Richard Wolf write for USA Today about their interview with Bush yesterday: "When asked about the chaotic final days of the Clinton White House, including a flurry of last-minute pardons, Bush said his own final week will be orderly.

"'It's like you get to the airport -- would you feel comfortable getting to the airport just as the door of the plane is closing, or would you like to be there 45 minutes ahead to make sure you don't miss it?' he asked. 'I tend to be, "Let's get there 45 minutes ahead" . . . and Laura is that way as well.'"

Obstinacy Watch

More from the Larry King interview:

Bush: "[T]hese opinion polls are nothing but a, you know, a shot of yesterday's news. And, of course, the opinion polls aren't going to be high when the economy is in the tank. I'm the president during a time of tough economic conditions. And, you know, people aren't happy with the economy. And neither am I.

"And -- so you cannot make decisions based upon, you know, popularity polls. I have people come to me and say, you get out of Iraq because you're making us unpopular. And I say, well, pal, you must not know what it means to be commander-in-chief. If the military thinks you're making decisions based upon a Gallup poll, they're not going to follow the commander-in-chief.

"And, secondly, you must not have met with those whose kids died in Iraq. If you think that I'm going to say to a mother, your son's -- your son's honor is not going to be -- your son's sacrifice is not going to be honored because of my political standing, then you don't understand George W. Bush."

King: "But do you ever get the feeling -- and everyone has some doubts about some things -- that, you know, if I was wrong, if Iraq was wrong and -- then they died in vain and I sent them?"

Bush: "Yes, I don't think Iraq was wrong."

King: "No, but do you ever have a moment of feeling where it was wrong?"

Bush: "No."

And on torture, Bush had this to say: "I'm comfortable with what we did and know it was necessary to protect the country."

King: "So there's nothing you've done in the area of treatment of prisoners that causes you any kind of pause?"

Bush: "No. No. Everything we did was -- you know, it had legal -- legal opinions behind it. Look, you're sitting there, you've captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He's the guy that ordered the September the 11th attacks. And we want to know what he knows in order to protect the United States of America.

"And I got legal opinions that said whatever we're going to do is legal. And my job is to protect you, Larry. And I've given it my all. I've given it my all."

Calling for a Commission

Larry Margasak writes for the Associated Press: "The incoming Obama administration should launch a criminal investigation of Bush administration officials to see whether they broke the law in the name of national security, a House Democratic report said Tuesday. President-elect Barack Obama has been more cautious on the issue and has not endorsed such a recommendation.

"Along with the criminal probe, the report called for a Sept. 11-style commission with subpoena power, to gather facts and make recommendations on preventing misuse of power, according to the report by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee.

"The report covers Bush administration policies that Democrats have protested for some time. Among them: interrogation of foreign detainees, warrantless wiretaps, retribution against critics, manipulation of intelligence and political dismissals of U.S. attorneys."

From the 483-page report's executive summary: "The Report makes clear that even after scores of hearings, investigations, and reports, Congress and the American public still do not have answers to some of the most fundamental questions concerning the Bush Imperial Presidency. These include the following:

"1. Who created the U.S. Attorney firing list, and how were specific U.S. Attorneys included or excluded from the list?

"2. Were any Laws Broken as a Result of the Enhanced Interrogation Tactics Engaged in by the Bush Administration?

"3. Were any Laws Broken as a Result of the Extraordinary Rendition Tactics Engaged in by the Bush Administration?

"4. Were any Laws Broken as a Result of the so-called 'Terrorist Surveillance Program' and related activities?

"5. To what extent were President Bush and Vice President Cheney involved in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson and its aftermath?"

Justice Watch

The question here is: Just how much of an outlier was this guy?

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "A former Justice Department official entrusted with enforcing civil rights laws refused to hire lawyers whom he labeled as 'commies' and transferred another attorney for allegedly writing in 'ebonics' and benefiting from 'an affirmative action thing,' according to an investigation released yesterday by internal watchdogs.

"The department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Bradley J. Schlozman violated civil service laws and made false statements about his activities to Congress in 2007, but federal prosecutors in the District declined to pursue a criminal perjury case against him.

"Over three years in which he controlled employment decisions, Schlozman favored young conservatives for entry-level jobs, transferred those he called 'right-thinking Americans' into top assignments and instructed colleagues that 'adherents of Mao's little red book need not apply,' according to e-mails cited in the report. Authorities analyzed 112 career hires during Schlozman's tenure and determined that 'virtually all' of the lawyers whose political affiliations were known at the time had ties to Republicans or conservative legal groups."

Bush's Medals

Four years after granting the nation's top civilian medal to the people who mismanaged the war in Iraq, Bush gave out a few more to those who enabled it.

Philip Elliott writes for the Associated Press: "President George W. Bush on Tuesday gave the United States' highest civilian award to three foreign leaders who have been among his most loyal partners on the world stage.

"Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and to two former leaders: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The awards come just one week before Bush leaves office.

"'They are the sort of guys who look you in the eye, and tell you the truth and keep their word,' Bush said during his final scheduled event in the White House's East Room."

As Elliott notes, Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA Director George Tenet, former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and retired Gen. Tommy Franks, three people central to his early policy in Iraq, in 2004.

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in The Washington Post: "Up there onstage with his 'three good friends,' Bush seemed to be having a blast. There was winking. There was grinning. There was mock fighting.

"Yes, that was the president of the United States playfully punching the left arm of the slightly built, bespectacled Uribe -- 'mi amigo,' Bush called him. . . .

"For Blair, Bush's old BFF from the run-up to the Iraq war, the president had a reminiscence rather than a sock. He told the one about his first visit with Blair, when a reporter asked whether they had anything in common.

"'I jokingly replied that we both used Colgate toothpaste,' Bush said to an audience that included Rush Limbaugh."

On Transparency

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Attorney General-designate Eric Holder could set the tone for a more open White House by speaking out this week on Capitol Hill against Bush administration policies promoting government secrecy.

"Such a shift, carrying out Barack Obama's campaign pledge for greater openness, would contrast with eight years of court battles the Bush administration has waged to resist disclosure of information.

"In Holder's appearance Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, questions about the Bush administration's record on secrecy may be eclipsed as Republicans focus on Holder's roles in the 1999 clemency grants to 16 Puerto Ricans who belonged to two militant groups and the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

"If confirmed, Holder would become a key player in the effort for greater openness because the Justice Department takes the lead on the issue of public disclosure, prescribing how information requests are handled and defending the government in court when the press, the public and Congress challenge secrecy decisions."

Meanwhile, the National Security Archive announced this morning: "The United States District Court for the District of Columbia today granted the National Security Archive's emergency motion for an extended preservation order to protect missing White House e-mails. With the transition from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration taking place in six days, and all the records of the Bush White House scheduled for a physical transfer to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on that same day, the Court has directed the Executive Office of the President (EOP) to search all its computer work stations and has ordered EOP employees to surrender any media in their possession that may contain e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005."

Here's a chronology of the lawsuit seeking to recover as many as five million missing White House e-mails.

And the Associated Press reported yesterday: "A federal judge says the incoming administration of Barack Obama must be given copies of documents the Bush White House has been withholding from Congress on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

"Tuesday's order by U.S. District Judge John Bates is a minor victory for the House Judiciary Committee's effort to get the documents as part of an investigation that led to the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"Bates agreed with the committee that if Congress wins its court fight over the documents that they would not be readily available once they were shipped to the National Archives when President George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20."

Dead-Enders Watch

The Investor's Business Daily editorial board writes: "George W. Bush was pegged as a hate figure even before being sworn in. Yet he resisted bitterness, stuck to principle and became what history will judge to be one of our better presidents."

Lisa Fabrizio writes in the American Spectator: "One can be reasonably sure that his exit, like his controversial entrance, will be marked by a graciousness usually absent in political circles. We can also be pretty certain that his departure will not feature the ransacking of the Oval Office and Air Force One, or the sophomoric removal of the 'O's' from White House keyboards. If, as has been the case for his entire presidency, he is true to his word, he will be as magnanimous to his successor as he was to his predecessor; notwithstanding the disrespect he received at the hands of both. . . .

"This is a man who endured countless savage attacks on himself and those of his administration, and spoke not one bitter word in return. A man who, in stark contrast to his predecessor, cared not a whit about public opinion when it came to our national defense, trusting instead that future historians will do what their current counterparts refuse; to treat him fairly.

"So this is the message to our liberal friends in the media: you didn't beat this president, he beat you. You and your allies in Washington failed time and again to take this good man down. Indeed, he was elected and re-elected despite your historic efforts to the contrary."

John Gizzi, one of the conservative authors who met with Bush last week, writes in Human Events: "Overall, I found George W. Bush to be relaxed, self-assured, and having no regrets save that 'I didn't get to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court.' Since our interview, many have asked how he sees his legacy. His frequent references to spreading democracy, as his discussing his friendship with former Japanese Premier Koizumi a generation after their fathers were enemies in World War II, convinced me that this is how President Bush hopes history will eventually judge him: a peacemaker who could see things in the longer term.

Finally, a Bounce

Lydia Saad writes for Gallup: "A new USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Jan. 9-11, finds 34% of Americans approving of the overall job George W. Bush is doing as president and 61% disapproving. Those ratings are a shade better than what Bush has received for most of the past year, and may represent the kind of lame-duck approval bounce Gallup has seen for other presidents.

"Bush had been averaging a 29% approval rating for the last quarter of his presidency up to now -- identical to his average approval ratings for each of the previous two quarters. . . .

"Bush mainly has members of his own party to thank for the fact that he is ending his presidency with an approval rating above 30%. Republicans' approval of him rose from 67% in mid-December to 75% in the current poll -- their highest rating of Bush in nearly a year. By contrast, approval of Bush remains extremely scarce among Democrats, and continues to fall under 30% among independents."

Cheney's Aggravation

Matt Corley blogs for Thinkprogress.org about Cheney's comment yesterday that it "always aggravated" him that the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the administration's warrantless surveillance program.

Get That Legacy Straight

Jacqueline Trescott writes in The Washington Post: "The National Portrait Gallery has taken the unusual step of amending a caption for a portrait of President George W. Bush at the request of a U.S. senator. . . .

"In a letter to the gallery, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) objected to the language that said 'the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . . '

"Sanders wrote: 'When President Bush and Vice President Cheney misled our nation into the war in Iraq, they certainly cited the attacks on September 11, along with the equally specious claim that Iraq possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The notion, however, that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked.' . . .

"The new wording eliminates the 'led to' phrase and instead provides a list of events that mark the Bush terms. It now reads ' . . . Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office.'"

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments about the Bush-Cheney legacy -- and whatever else is on your mind.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart on Bush's final press conference: "Do you see what the president is doing here? He's using the word disappointment. Disappointment is what you feel when others make mistakes. We've let him down."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius and John Cole on the Bush legacy, Jim Morin, Garry Trudeau and Ann Telnaes on the exit interviews, Tony Auth and Bob Gorrell on mission accomplished, and Bob Englehart on shovel-ready.

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