Justice Department Recommends Investigation of Prisoner Abuse as Obama Revises Interrogation Practices

The New York Times reports that the Justice Department’s ethics office is recommending investigations of abuses of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, despite Obama’s reluctance to reopen these matters:

The Justice Department’s ethics office has recommended reversing the Bush administration and reopening nearly a dozen prisoner-abuse cases, potentially exposing Central Intelligence Agency employees and contractors to prosecution for brutal treatment of terrorism suspects, according to a person officially briefed on the matter.

The recommendation by the Office of Professional Responsibility, presented to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in recent weeks, comes as the Justice Department is about to disclose on Monday voluminous details on prisoner abuse that were gathered in 2004 by the C.I.A.’s inspector general but have never been released.

When the C.I.A. first referred its inspector general’s findings to prosecutors, they decided that none of the cases merited prosecution. But Mr. Holder’s associates say that when he took office and saw the allegations, which included the deaths of people in custody and other cases of physical or mental torment, he began to reconsider.

With the release of the details on Monday and the formal advice that at least some cases be reopened, it now seems all but certain that the appointment of a prosecutor or other concrete steps will follow, posing significant new problems for the C.I.A. It is politically awkward, too, for Mr. Holder because President Obama has said that he would rather move forward than get bogged down in the issue at the expense of his own agenda.

The Washington Post reports on how the Obama administration is changing how  interrogations will be conducted, using an elite team of interrogators. The new policy call for them to follow the guidelines of the Army Field Manual.

President Obama has approved the creation of an elite team of interrogators to question key terrorism suspects, part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation, senior administration officials said Sunday.

Obama signed off late last week on the unit, named the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG. Made up of experts from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the interrogation unit will be housed at the FBI but will be overseen by the National Security Council — shifting the center of gravity away from the CIA and giving the White House direct oversight.

Seeking to signal a clean break from the Bush administration, Obama moved to overhaul interrogation and detention guidelines soon after taking office, including the creation of a task force on interrogation and transfer policies. The task force, whose findings will be made public Monday, recommended the new interrogation unit, along with other changes regarding the way prisoners are transferred overseas.

A separate task force on detainees, which will determine the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and future regulations about the duration and location of detentions of suspected terrorists, has not concluded its work.

Under the new guidelines, interrogators must stay within the parameters of the Army Field Manual when questioning suspects. The task force concluded — unanimously, officials said — that “the Army Field Manual provides appropriate guidance on interrogation for military interrogators and that no additional or different guidance was necessary for other agencies,” according to a three-page summary of the findings. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters freely.

Using the Army Field Manual means certain techniques in the gray zone between torture and legal questioning — such as playing loud music or depriving prisoners of sleep — will not be allowed. Which tactics are acceptable was an issue “looked at thoroughly,” one senior official said. Obama had already banned certain severe measures that the Bush administration had permitted, such as waterboarding.

Cheney Backs Away From Torture Claims

Dick Cheney had claimed that some classified CIA documents supported his contention that torture provided information which prevented a terrorist attack, contradicting a report from the CIA’s inspector general. A few days ago Senator Carl Levin reviewed the documents and stated that Cheney’s claims about the classified documents were untrue. Greg Sargent has reviewed an interview Cheney gave with Fox last night, finding that Cheney has backed away from his claims:

There’s a very revealing moment buried in an interview that Dick Cheney gave to Fox News last night that really gives away his game plan on torture.

Specifically: Cheney seemed to edge away from the claim that the documents he’s asking the CIA to declassify will prove unequivocally that torture worked.

The key moment came when his interviewer said: “You want some documents declassified having to do with waterboarding.” Cheney replied:

“Yes, but the way I would describe them is they have to do with the detainee program, the interrogation program. It’s not just waterboarding. It’s the interrogation program that we used for high-value detainees. There were two reports done that summarize what we learned from that program, and I think they provide a balanced view.”

Bear with me here, because this is crucial. Cheney is carefully saying that the documents summarize what we learned from the overall interrogation program. Torture, of course, was only a component of that program. So he’s clearly saying that the docs summarize what was learned from a program that included non-torture techniques, too.

Here’s why this is important. It dovetails precisely with what Senator Carl Levin, who has also seen these docs, says about them. Levin claims the docs don’t do anything to “connect acquisition of valuable intelligence to the use of the abusive techniques.”

My bet is Cheney is planning to cite the valuable intel in the docs and say that the program — of which torture was only a part — was responsible for producing it. He’ll fudge the question of whether the torture itself was actually responsible for generating that information. Cheney is as experienced as any Washington hand at using precise language to obfsucate, and this is the game plan.

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Post 9/11 Traumatic Distress Syndrome

It is understandable that people where shaken up by the events of 9/11. It must have been startling for Dick Cheney to have been carried off by the secret service to an underground bunker. Meanwhile George Bush seemed to be in such a panic that he could not function for a couple of days. We  need level headed leaders who can overcome their initial shock and act responsibly. Richard Clarke, who was also there on 9/11, doesn’t accept shock over the events as justification for the disastrous policy mistakes which followed. He writes in an op-ed:

Top officials from the Bush administration have hit upon a revealing new theme as they retrospectively justify their national security policies. Call it the White House 9/11 trauma defense.

“Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans,” Condoleezza Rice said last month as she admonished a Stanford University student who questioned the Bush-era interrogation program. And in his May 21 speech on national security, Dick Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a “defining” experience that “caused everyone to take a serious second look” at the threats to America. Critics of the administration have become more intense as memories of the attacks have faded, he argued. “Part of our responsibility, as we saw it,” Cheney said, “was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America.”

I remember that morning, too. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, I burst in on Rice (then the president’s national security adviser) and Cheney in the vice president’s office and remember glimpsing horror on his face. Once in the bomb shelter, Cheney assembled his team while the crisis managers on the National Security Council staff coordinated the government response by video conference from the Situation Room. Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive. I remember the next day, too, when smoke still rose from the Pentagon as I sat in my office in the White House compound, a gas mask on my desk. The streets of Washington were empty, except for the armored vehicles, and the skies were clear, except for the F-15s on patrol. Every scene from those days is seared into my memory. I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans.

Yet listening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic. “If you were there in a position of authority and watched Americans drop out of eighty-story buildings because these murderous tyrants went after innocent people,” Rice said in her recent comments, “then you were determined to do anything that you could that was legal to prevent that from happening again.”

I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years — on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping — were not appropriate. Careful analysis could have replaced the impulse to break all the rules, even more so because the Sept. 11 attacks, though horrifying, should not have surprised senior officials. Cheney’s admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack.

Clarke discussed specific ideas discussed, including invading Iraq, use of the U.S. courts and prisons to handle suspected terrorists, extreme interrogation methods, and wiretapping. While not discussed in detail in his op-ed, the Bush administration had also received warnings prior to the attack which they had ignored. He concluded:

Yes, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice may have been surprised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — but it was because they had not listened. And their surprise led them to adopt extreme counterterrorism techniques — but it was because they rejected, without analysis, the tactics the Clinton administration had used. The measures they uncritically adopted, which they simply assumed were the best available, were in fact unnecessary and counterproductive.

“I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities,” Cheney said in his recent speech. But this defense does not stand up. The Bush administration’s response actually undermined the principles and values America has always stood for in the world, values that should have survived this traumatic event. The White House thought that 9/11 changed everything. It may have changed many things, but it did not change the Constitution, which the vice president, the national security adviser and all of us who were in the White House that tragic day had pledged to protect and preserve.

The purpose of a terrorist attack is to inflict terror upon the victims. They were far more successful than they might have anticipated considering the degree to which they inflicted terror upon top leaders in the Bush administration, leading them to take actions which were counterproductive to our national security and contrary to our principles.

Cheney Lied About Torture Saving Lives

For over a month Dick Cheney has been justifying his support for the illegal use of torture by claiming that CIA documents prove that torture was effective in saving American lives. This was very convenient for Cheney since the documents which supposedly show this are classified. Although Cheney’s claims contradict general statements on the lack of efficacy from torture, we could not evaluate the actual documents Cheney was referring to. Fortunately Senator Carl Levin has reviewed the documents and has stated that Cheney is lying:

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says former Vice President Dick Cheney is lying when he claims that classified CIA memos show that enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding worked.

Levin, speaking at the Foreign Policy Association’s annual dinner in Washington on Wednesday, said an investigation by his committee into detainee abuse charges over the use of the techniques — now deemed torture by the Obama administration — “gives the lie to Mr. Cheney’s claims.”

The Michigan Democrat told the crowd that the two CIA documents that Cheney wants released “say nothing about numbers of lives saved, nor do the documents connect acquisition of valuable intelligence to the use of abusive techniques.”

“I hope that the documents are declassified, so that people can judge for themselves what is fact, and what is fiction,” he added.

Debunking Cheney

Earlier in the week Dick Cheney gave a speech after Barack Obama on national security and the media went along with the hype that this was some sort of debate between the two. Dick Cheney is a war criminal who is wrong on most national security issues, and whose ideas were rejected in the past election. Even the Republican candidate rejected some of Cheney’s more extreme positions, such as support for torture (which is a war crime). Hearing Dick Cheney try to excuse his war crimes and attack Obama should not be taken as a debate between the two as if they are still on equal footing.

Joe Klein interpreted Cheney’s speech in the context of his overall philosophy:

I refer readers to Barton Gellman’s excellent Cheney biography, Angler, in which it is made plain that Cheney’s view of the presidency (provided by his thuggish counsel, David Addington) was eccentric at best; and, at worst, a temporary coup d’etat, abetted by the President’s lack of interest or mortal dimness. It’s true, as Brooks writes, that some of Cheney’s overreach was a result of understandable panic after the 9/11 attacks. But the real problem, as evidenced by the Vice President’s actions in other areas (like environmental policy), was Cheney’s twisted belief that the Constitution confers on the President near-dictatorial powers, especially in a time of war. Cheney’s profound authoritarian streak, and his moral ignorance, were demonstrated once again in his speech yesterday:

“In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground and half-measures leave you half-exposed.”

Which is utter nonsense, of course: the middle ground exists between doing nothing and doing far too much, too brutally–in a way that only creates more terrorists–a path that Cheney pursued to our great national detriment.

He also discussed the differences in Obama’s views:

In fact, the thrust of Obama’s national security policy is dramatically different from Bush’s. His emphasis on a comprehensive regional approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the opposite of Bush’s feckless abandonment of this far more crucial fight in the war against Al Qaeda. His decision to engage Iran, his decision to push forward in the Middle East (including the demand that Israel stop building illegal settlements), his decision to participate in global climate change talks, his decision not to indulge in the disdain–manifested by Cheney yet again in his speech–for our European allies. These are all dramatic turns for the better.

The difference between Obama and Cheney-Bush on national security and foreign policy issues is simply put: it’s the difference between a moderate and an extremist, the difference between a leader and a bully.

Even Tom Ridge disagreed with Cheney’s claims that the country is less safe under Obama.

McClatchy listed many factual errors made by Cheney:

(more…)

Talk Radio Host Undergoes Waterboarding; Admits It Is Torture

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUkj9pjx3H0]

Waterboarding is a form of torture in which the victim is given the sensation of drowning. Many conservatives have downplayed the technique, even claiming it is not torture. The average person can tolerate waterboarding for fourteen seconds. One might think that if someone actually knows they won’t be drowned, and if they have the ability to have it stopped whenever they want, they might be able to hold out for even longer. Conservative talk radio host WLS radio host Erich “Mancow” Muller underwent waterboarding, hoping to prove it is not torture (video above). He lasted lasted than seven seconds:

Witnesses said Muller thrashed on the table, and even instantly threw the toy cow he was holding as his emergency tool to signify when he wanted the experiment to stop.  He only lasted 6 or 7 seconds.

“It is way worse than I thought it would be, and that’s no joke,”Mancow said, likening it to a time when he nearly drowned as a child.  “It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back…It was instantaneous…and I don’t want to say this: absolutely torture.”

“I wanted to prove it wasn’t torture,” Mancow said.  “They cut off our heads, we put water on their face…I got voted to do this but I really thought ‘I’m going to laugh this off.’ “

Last year, Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens endured the same experiment — and came to a similar conclusion. The conservative writer said he found the treatment terrifying, and was haunted by it for months afterward.

“Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture,” Hitchens concluded in the article.

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Nancy Pelosi, The CIA, and Waterboarding

If anyone is interested in trying to sort out what Nancy Pelosi was told by the CIA, Factcheck.org has just posted a report on this story. There’s no conclusive answer.

Quote of the Day

“They saw the law, many times, as a nicety that we couldn’t afford.”
Lindsey Graham on the Bush administration’s view of the law and justification for torture.

Obama Reportedly Ready To Call Cheney’s Bluff On Torture Documents

Dick Cheney has been claiming that his policy on torture is vindicated by secret documents, and has been calling on Barack Obama to release them. Reportedly Obama is getting ready to do so but Greg Sargent reports they won’t help Cheney:

The White House has decided to declassify and release a classified 2004 CIA report about the torture program that is reported to have found no proof that torture foiled any terror plots on American soil — directly contradicting Cheney’s claims. The paper cites “allies” of the White House as a source.

Dem Congressional staffers tell me this report is the “holy grail,” because it is expected to detail torture in unprecedented detail and to cast doubt on the claim that torture works — and its release will almost certainly trigger howls of protest from conservatives.

Torture And The Ultimate Ticking Bomb

Supporters of torture, who are unable to distinguish between reality and an episode of 24, frequently use ticking bomb scenarios to defend the use of torture. Perhaps the biggest incident of using torture in the hopes of stopping a bomb was in Japan before Hiroshima. Julian Sanchez points out that the use of torture did not help the Japanese. Not only wasn’t the bombing stopped, but misinformation obtained under torture wound up misleading the Japanese, to our benefit:

Whatever role the bombings played in hastening Japan’s unconditional surrender, it was probably enhanced by the testimony of captured Air Force First Lieutenant Marcus McDilda. Though he initially professed to know nothing about the Manhattan Project or the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima—because he didn’t—under torture he “confessed” that, contrary to Japanese hopes that the Americans could not possibly have produced more than a few, the United States had hundreds ready for deployment, with Tokyo and Kyoto next on the list of targets.

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