"This Is Your Baby, Go To It"
I thought I was long past the point of being shocked at anything the Bush administration did. They suspended the constitution after 9/11 and set forth a series of legal opinions that said the president can do anything he deems necessary to "protect the country." Once you truly absorb that fact, it's hard to be emotionally affected by anything else you learn.
But I was wrong. This shocks me. The president of the United States casually admits on television that he approved of his national security team personally deciding which specific torture techniques should be used against prisoners:
"Well, we started to connect the dots, in order to protect the American people." Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "And, yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."
As first reported by ABC News on Wednesday, the most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
These top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding, sources told ABC news.
The advisers were members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.
At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
There was a time when the Village clucked and screeched about "defiling the white house" with an extra marital affair or hosting fund raising coffees. I would say this leaves a far greater stain on that institution than any sexual act could ever do. They did this in your name, Americans.
The vice president, national security advisor and members of the president's cabinet sat around the white house "choreographing" the torture and the president approved it. I have to say that even in my most vivid imaginings about this torture scheme it didn't occur to me that the highest levels of the cabinet were personally involved (except Cheney and Rumsfeld, of course) much less that we would reach a point where the president of the United States would shrug his shoulders and say he approved. I assumed they were all vaguely knowledgeable, some more than others, but that they would have done everything in their power to keep their own fingerprints off of it. But no. It sounds as though they were eagerly involved, they all signed off unanimously and thought nothing of it.
Naturally, the saintly General C. Lukewarm Powell was his usual evasive self when asked about it. (And if I hear one more person say he should be on the Democratic ticket I'm going to have an aneurysm):
Powell said that he didn't have "sufficient memory recall" about the meetings and that he had participated in "many meetings on how to deal with detainees." Powell said, "I'm not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal."
The Attorney General(!) also present and approving, was concerned that this was being done inside the white house:
Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.
According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."
That's what passes for integrity in the Bush white house.
He's certainly right about history not judging this kindly. Neither would a war crimes tribunal. It's hard to imagine that these people can ever feel comfortable travelling around the world again after this; perhaps they believe there's safety in numbers or something. But I don't know how you avoid being held personally responsible for torturing people under these circumstances if you find yourself in a legal proceeding. Simply saying it wasn't "real torture" won't cut it, particularly at this level of detail. They actually went beyond the scope of the Yoo memo:
The Principals also approved interrogations that combined different methods, pushing the limits of international law and even the Justice Department's own legal approval in the 2002 memo, sources told ABC News.
At one meeting in the summer of 2003 -- attended by Vice President Cheney, among others -- Tenet made an elaborate presentation for approval to combine several different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time, according to a highly placed administration source.
A year later, amidst the outcry over unrelated abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the controversial 2002 legal memo, which gave formal legal authorization for the CIA interrogation program of the top al Qaeda suspects, leaked to the press. A new senior official in the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith, withdrew the legal memo -- the Golden Shield -- that authorized the program.
But the CIA had captured a new al Qaeda suspect in Asia. Sources said CIA officials that summer returned to the Principals Committee for approval to continue using certain "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Then-National Security Advisor Rice, sources said, was decisive. Despite growing policy concerns -- shared by Powell -- that the program was harming the image of the United States abroad, sources say she did not back down, telling the CIA: "This is your baby. Go do it."
There was a time when a scene like this would have been so outlandish that people would have said "it sounds like some kind of Oliver Stone conspiracy." I have a sneaking suspicion that old Ollie is furiously working on rewrites for his Bush Biopic this week-end. But I doubt even his fertile imagination is going to find it easy to make a scene play in which all the top players in the Bush administration casually decide which torture techniques to use that day. Its something out of a bad spy novel --- or a nightmare.
John Conyers has invited some of the players to come up to the hill and testify about these meetings. I have sneaking suspicion they won't be available. And since the congress has rendered itself impotent to enforce its subpoenas in the face of Bush recalcitrance, I don't think we'll be seeing them.
Perhaps someone on the campaign trail could ask Senator McCain, the allegedly anti-torture Republican what he thinks about this. I'm sure he'll say that he's "against torture," which they all do. But in this case the highest levels of the Bush administration personally approved water boarding, which even he has admitted is actual torture. I'd like to see someone pin him down on this. He gets a tremendous amount credit and affection for his bravery and "principles" on this issue, when his history is actually one of real political cowardice.