Then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales with President Bush in July 2004. (AP)
Establishing the connection between the Bush White House and Abu Ghraib
COMMENTARY | May 22, 2009
Denying that White House policy was directly responsible for the vile abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has been the central goal of a five-year disinformation campaign by Bush officials. 'Torture Team' author Philippe Sands argues that newly-disclosed records show how blatantly Bush officials were willing to lie in order to lead reporters away from the truth. Eighth in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
By Dan Froomkin
Soon after the photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib went public, Bush administration officials contrived a high-stakes disinformation campaign to prevent the American people from linking the White House to the vile, sadistic treatment of detainees in that Iraqi prison. They repeatedly insisted that the abuses were just the work of a few “bad apples.” They scoffed at the notion that their orders circumventing historic limits on interrogation were remotely responsible.
Five years later, they’re still at it, with former vice president Dick Cheney waging a clever campaign that would have the debate over government-sanctioned torture turn on what techniques were employed at the CIA’s secret prison -- and whether they “worked.” But the national debate should be a much broader one, as there is an ever-growing body of evidence definitively linking decisions made by Bush and Cheney not just to the torture at the CIA’s black sites, but to the pervasive, inhumane treatment of detainees – many of whom were utterly innocent -- at prison facilities such as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo as well. As desperately as the Bush team wanted to avoid the taint of Abu Ghraib in the 2004 re-election campaign, they appear now to be equally intent on minimizing the scale of their misdeeds in order to tamp down the public demand for some sort of thorough, official investigation into their conduct.
But “Torture Team” author Philippe Sands points out that a vivid illustration of the disinformation campaign – showing just how far officials were willing to mislead and lie in their desperate attempt to avoid culpability for Abu Ghraib – can now be found by comparing one of the newly-released Justice Department memos with statements made by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales in June 2004.
The Abu Ghraib photos were first published in April 2004. Administration officials immediately responded by saying the abuses were isolated acts by misguided people. Bush himself, 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." But reporters soon uncovered the existence of several Justice Department memos apparently justifying unprecedentedly harsh treatment of detainees -- raising the disturbing question of whether what happened at Abu Ghraib might in fact have been an outgrowth of official policy, rather than a tragic exception.
It was in this environment, on June 22, 2004, that Gonzales was sent out to engage the White House press corps. His specific charge was to explain how the original “torture memo” -- an August 1, 2002 memo sent to him by Jay Bybee, then the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel -- had nothing to do with anything. The opinions in the memo, Gonzales earnestly told reporters, “in reality, they do not reflect the policies that the administration ultimately adopted.” He dismissively referred to “[u]necessary, over-broad discussions in some of these memos that address abstract legal theories” and insisted they were “not relied upon by decision-makers…
“As for the incidents at Abu Ghraib,” Gonzales said, “they were not authorized and have nothing to do with the policies contained in any of these memos. The President has made clear that he condemns this conduct. He has made clear that these activities are inconsistent with the specific policy guidance.” “White House Says Prisoner Policy Set Humane Tone,” proclaimed the New York Times headline the next day.
But in last month’s release of more Justice Department documents, we learned that the August 1, 2002, memo disclosed in 2004 wasn’t issued in a vacuum. There was a companion memo, this one translating the first one’s “over-broad discussion” of “abstract legal theories” – as Gonzales put it -- into an explicit, operational guide to torture. The second memo refers to specific conclusions made in the first memo, and relies on them to justify individual techniques. Knowing what we know now about the second memo, what Gonzales said about the first one being just a blue-sky exercise can’t be seen as anything but an outright lie – a deceitful misdirection to lead reporters away from the truth. “How could he stand up and say that?” asks Sands. “I just find that extraordinary.”
And while Gonzales might conceivably argue that he left himself an out by saying at the outset of his remarks that “this briefing does not include CIA activities,” there’s no getting around that his goal was to persuade reporters that the first memo came to nothing. And Gonzales would also have known that some of the very methods described in the second memo were later explicitly approved for the military. Indeed, no less an authority than John Yoo, the primary author of the two August 1 memos, told The Washington Post in 2007 that White House officials had actively advocated for the military to adopt the tactics that he had approved for the CIA. Barton Gellman and Jo Becker wrote: “Yoo said… in an interview that he verbally warned lawyers for the president, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that it would be dangerous as a matter of policy to permit military interrogators to use the harshest techniques, because the armed services, vastly larger than the CIA, could overuse the tools or exceed the limits. ‘I always thought that only the CIA should do this, but people at the White House and at DOD felt differently,’ Yoo said.” The lawyers he referred to were, presumably, Gonzales, Cheney counsel David Addington, and Pentagon counsel William J. (Jim) Haynes.
In December, just four months after the August OLC memos were issued, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed and approved a memo written by Haynes authorizing military interrogators at Guantanamo to apply such techniques as stress positions, hooding, sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity, prolonged exposure to cold and the use of dogs – techniques whose cumulative use easily qualifies as torture. Several months later, in August 2003, the Guantanamo commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller made a trip to Iraq, accompanied by the Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, where among other things, they advised on U.S. operations at Abu Ghraib. The direct line from the White House to Abu Ghraib was complete, via Guantanamo. The Abu Ghraib photos were taken six weeks after Miller’s visit.
The White House disinformation campaign has been so successful, however, that Abu Ghraib is still widely seen as an isolated incident – and not as the result of public policy decisions. That’s the biggest reason why President Obama’s recent decision to fight the court-ordered release of more prison-abuse photos was such a blow to accountability. It was, after all, the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that forced the nation to acknowledge what had happened there. There is something visceral and undeniable about photographic evidence which makes it almost uniquely capable of shaking people out of their complacency – or, in this case, cutting through the disinformation and denial that surrounds the issue of detainee abuse. The photos Obama is now trying to keep secret are said to depict prisoner abuse very much like that at Abu Ghraib – but at several other locations, including Guantanamo. “These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib,” Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the A.C.L.U., which sued for release of the pictures under the Freedom of Information Act, told the New York Times. Their disclosure “is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse,” she said.
Meanwhile, Cheney continues his crusade to confine the national debate over Bush-era abuses to what the CIA did to “high-level” terror suspects -- rather than what happened to garden-variety detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Just yesterday, in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Cheney was at pains to distinguish between the two, well aware that while one might be a tough call with many Americans, the other isn’t even close. “In public discussion of these matters, there has been a strange and sometimes willful attempt to conflate what happened at Abu Ghraib prison with the top secret program of enhanced interrogations,” Cheney said. “At Abu Ghraib, a few sadistic prison guards abused inmates in violation of American law, military regulations, and simple decency. For the harm they did, to Iraqi prisoners and to America's cause, they deserved and received Army justice. And it takes a deeply unfair cast of mind to equate the disgraces of Abu Ghraib with the lawful, skillful, and entirely honorable work of CIA personnel trained to deal with a few malevolent men.”
The allegation that the Bush administration engaged in a disinformation campaign is not exactly new. A bipartisan report from the Senate Armed Services Committee released in December definitively concluded that the administration's repeated explanations of the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere was 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 found. "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.”
Similarly, in his book “The Torture Team,” Sands documents how the Pentagon initially tried to blame officers at Guantanamo for the brutal interrogation regime there. As Sands wrote in this Vanity Fair excerpt, Bush administration officials insisted that “techniques were not imposed or encouraged by Washington, which had merely reacted to a request from below.” They even maintained that the legal justification was initiated there as well. “It was not the result of legal positions taken by politically appointed lawyers in the upper echelons of the administration, and certainly not the Justice Department.”
But, Sands wrote: “The real story, pieced together from many hours of interviews with most of the people involved in the decisions about interrogation, goes something like this: [The February 2002 memo in which Bush exempted war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions] was not a case of following the logic of the law but rather was designed to give effect to a prior decision to take the gloves off and allow coercive interrogation; it deliberately created a legal black hole into which the detainees were meant to fall. The new interrogation techniques did not arise spontaneously from the field but came about as a direct result of intense pressure and input from Rumsfeld’s office. The Yoo-Bybee Memo was not simply some theoretical document, an academic exercise in blue-sky hypothesizing, but rather played a crucial role in giving those at the top the confidence to put pressure on those at the bottom. And the practices employed at Guantánamo led to abuses at Abu Ghraib.
“The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies. Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.”
Sands now sees two meetings in July 2002 as being particularly critical. According to a recently declassified Justice Department timeline, one meeting took place on July 13, when “according to CIA records, attorneys from the CIA’s Office of General Counsel met with the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from OLC, the head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, the chief of staff to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Counsel to the President to provide an overview of the proposed interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah.”
The second took place on July 17, when “the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) met with the National Security Adviser, who advised that the CIA could proceed with its proposed interrogation of Abu Zubaydah…. authorized CIA to proceed as a policy matter, was subject to a determination of legality by OLC.” The following week, OLC orally gave the CIA the go-ahead for various techniques including waterboarding – a decision memorialized in the second memo from August 1. And Zubaydah became the first CIA prisoner tortured on direct orders of the White House.
The most effective way to counter all the disinformation that’s been spread during the past five years would be to launch a thorough investigation -- and produce the definitive story of what really happened. “The central task for any investigation is to sort out fully and completely the precise timeframe as to what happened between September 11, 2001, and August 1, 2002,” says Sands. “Which departments were involved, what was the relationship between the Department of Defense, the CIA and the White House – as well as the office of the vice president and the Justice Department. We need to see all the meeting logs, the telephone records, the email exchanges and such other documents – material that would exist to show all the contacts between the individuals listed as having present in those July 2002 meetings.
“What was the process that led to those [August 1] memos being drafted?” Sands asks. “We still don’t know the full circumstances in which those two memos were sought.”
And the notion that Bush could personally duck the ultimate responsibility for his administration’s interrogation policy became more remote in the last few weeks, with Cheney and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice both making it clear that the authorizations came from Bush himself. Rice told persistent Stanford University students: “I didn't authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency. That they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department's clearance. That's what I did.” And in an interview of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on May 10, Cheney told Bob Schieffer that Bush “knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it.”
“The 1984 Convention against Torture has a provision in its Article 4 that deals with these actions”, says Sands. “Its called complicity in torture, it’s a crime, and if the Obama Administration wants to restore U.S. authority its going to have to come to terms with the legal obligation to investigate.”
Prosecute the war criminals who started an unneccessary war for Iraqi oil
05/25/2009, 10:55 AM
Let's actually find out what the war criminals did. Mr. "Go F**k Yourself" and his puppet, Georgie-boy are war criminals, along with all the conspirators in the other branches of our federal government.
Let's find out what exactly was discussed in Cheney's energy conference where I'll bet that Cheney told them that the US would attack Iraq and get rid of Hussein because he wasn't selling his oil for the "approved" price of OPEC.
Of course, all the "discussion" revolves around the war crimes committed. Personally, I was very disappointed that the two weren't handcuffed and shipped off to the Hague on the 20th. But then, Obama has been a disappointment as well.