The Man Behind The Curtain

If you haven't yet read the first two installments (1, 2) of the Washington Post's four part series on Dick Cheney's role in the Bush administration,

If you haven't yet read the first two installments (1, 2) of the Washington Post's four part series on Dick Cheney's role in the Bush administration, go read them now. They're incredible. Barton Gellman and Jo Becker do an excellent job telling the behind-the-scenes story of how the Bush administration's various terrorism-related policies came into being. The articles confirm much of what has been suspected about Cheney's role and fill in many of the gaps. It's riveting stuff, and deeply disturbing.

There's enough stuff in the first two installments alone to fill 100 blog posts, easily. But since I don't have that kind of time, I want to focus on a few meta-observations.

(1) Conspicuously absent from nearly every important scene described in these articles is the President himself. Time and again we see the Vice President making decisions, attending meetings, and handling situations that really should be handled by the President personally. We also see the Vice President continually limiting or otherwise manipulating the information and advice that reaches the President's ear. We see him secretly intercepting memos intended for other cabinet officials, keeping key officials out of the loop on important decisions, and using other officials to disguise the provenance of advice originating from his office. The portrait that emerges is of a man with utter disdain for process and an almost messianic certainty in his beliefs, a man who has used his immense knowledge of the workings of the executive bureaucracy and his close relationship with a pliant, inexperienced president to effectively control national policy on all issues related to the "war on terror" for the last six years. Cheney really is the man behind the curtain.

(2) If you read between the lines in part two of the series, it seems pretty clear that Dick Cheney himself bears enormous responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib:

Shortly after the first accused terrorists reached the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Jan. 11, 2002, a delegation from CIA headquarters arrived in the Situation Room. The agency presented a delicate problem to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, a man with next to no experience on the subject. Vice President Cheney's lawyer, who had a great deal of experience, sat nearby. The meeting marked "the first time that the issue of interrogations comes up" among top-ranking White House officials, recalled John C. Yoo, who represented the Justice Department. "The CIA guys said, 'We're going to have some real difficulties getting actionable intelligence from detainees'" if interrogators confined themselves to humane techniques allowed by the Geneva Conventions.


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From that moment, well before previous accounts have suggested, Cheney turned his attention to the practical business of crushing a captive's will to resist. The vice president's office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials.

Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden "torture" and permitted use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" methods of questioning.

Later in the piece they write:

The vice president's counsel proposed that President Bush issue a carefully ambiguous directive. Detainees would be treated "humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of" the Geneva Conventions. When Bush issued his public decision two weeks later, on Feb. 7, 2002, he adopted Addington's formula -- with all its room for maneuver -- verbatim.

In a radio interview last fall, Cheney said, "We don't torture." What he did not acknowledge, according to Alberto J. Mora, who served then as the Bush-appointed Navy general counsel, was that the new legal framework was designed specifically to leave room for cruelty. In international law, Mora said, cruelty is defined as "the imposition of severe physical or mental pain or suffering." He added: "Torture is an extreme version of cruelty."

The piece then describes how David Addington, Cheney's lawyer, worked with John Yoo to draft a pair of secret memos on the use of torture. The first "narrowed the definition of 'torture' to mean only suffering 'equivalent in intensity' to the pain of 'organ failure ..... or even death.'" The second memo approved a laundry list of "enhanced techniques" including waterboarding. According to Gellman and Becker, neither Condoleezza Rice nor Colin Powell knew that such memos existed until it was reported by the Washington Post in 2004, an event which prompted an intense confrontation between Rice and Alberto Gonzales.

But here's where the link to Abu Ghraib comes in. According the article:

[John] Yoo said for the first time 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 migration of those techniques from the CIA to the military, and from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, aroused worldwide condemnation when abuse by U.S. troops was exposed.

In other words, the people who were championing the use of these new (illegal) interrogation techniques were specifically warned that if military interrogators were permitted to use them, it would be difficult to contain the spread of such practices and abuse was likely. In the best case, these warnings were disregarded, the techniques migrated, and the result was Abu Ghraib. In the worst case (which I suspect is more likely), the use of these enhanced techniques was affirmatively encouraged in all military theatres, not just Guantanamo, and the result was Abu Ghraib. Either way, the Office of the Vice President is directly responsible for stripping away the clear rules that had previously existed regarding the treatment of military detainees, a move that set the stage for what would later happen at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

(3) Another meta-theme that emerges from the articles is how utterly self-destructive Cheney's legal crusades have been. Time and again you see smart lawyers within the administration (often ones who agree with Cheney substantively) warning him that the courts aren't going to accept certain arguments, and time and again you see Cheney ignoring this advice and insisting that the administration plow ahead. In every case, the courts ended up rejecting Cheney's views, and in the exact way the administration's own lawyers had predicted. As Bruce Fein, who is quoted in the piece, says:

"The irony with the Cheney crowd pushing the envelope on presidential power is that the president has now ended up with lesser powers than he would have had if they had made less extravagant, monarchical claims."

That's unquestionably true. The legal positions that Cheney demanded the administration take were so audacious and unsupportable that they essentially forced the courts to step in and rebuke the administration, thereby creating important legal precedents in areas where none previously existed. Had the administration adopted positions that were aggressive but not insane, the courts would likely have been more deferential.

That's all I've got for now, but like I said, there's a lot of stuff in these articles that is worth examining in more depth, and I hope to do so as time permits.

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