Rachel Maddow talks to Ron Suskind about what was driving the Bush administrations requests for the "harsh interrogation methods" a.k.a. torture to be used on suspected al Qaeda terrorists. It was not to protect the country but instead to justify the invasion of Iraq.
MADDOW: This new Levin report confirms a lot of the reporting that you did for your book in 2006. Is the headline here at last that the torture goes right to the White House?
SUSKIND: Yes. Well, that‘s what I found back in the reporting back in ‘06, you know? It was directed by the president and the vice president. They were involved day to day.
The president was getting briefings. The vice president—what techniques are we using; he was asking, “Are they working, what is the yield?” This came from the very top.
And that‘s the way it filtered down as the Senate report now shows, all the way through the government. That‘s why we now have coherence, if you will, in terms of techniques, in terms of strategy, in terms of goals, and in terms of who really is driving this. It comes from the big white building.
MADDOW: You‘ve done a lot of reporting on the Bush administration‘s efforts to try to create, try to find some sort of link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda—for all the obvious political reasons in 2002 and 2003. How big of a development is it that these interrogation tactics were being used, in some cases, according to the Armed Services Committee report, these techniques were being used specifically to try to find that Iraq link?
SUSKIND: Well, it‘s fascinating. I heard some of that back when I was reporting the book, but I really couldn‘t confirm it and you need, you know, several sources confirming to put it in the book.
And what‘s fascinating here, if you run the timeline side by side, you see, really, for the first time from that report that the key thing being sent down in terms of the request by the policymakers, by the White House, is find a link between Saddam and al Qaeda so that we essentially can link Saddam to the 9/11 attacks and then march into Iraq with the anger of 9/11 behind us. That was the goal and that was being passed down as the directive.
It‘s, you know, it‘s often called the requirement inside the CIA for both agents with their sources and interrogators with their captives. “Here‘s what we‘re interested in, here‘s what we, the duly elected leaders, want to hear about. Tell us what you can find.”
What‘s fascinating, in the Senate report, is finally clear confirmation that that specific thing was driving many of the activities, and mind you, the frustration inside of the White House that was actually driving action. The quote, in fact, inside of the Senate report from a major said that as frustration built inside of the White House, that there was no link that was established—because the CIA told the White House from the very start there is no Saddam/al Qaeda link. We checked it out. We did every which way. Sorry.
The White House simply wouldn‘t take no for an answer and it went with another method. Torture was the method. “Get me a confession, I don‘t care how you do it.” And that bled all the way through the government, both on the CIA side and the Army side. It‘s extraordinary.
Mind you, Rachel, this is important. This is not about an impetus to foil an upcoming potential al Qaeda attacks. The impetus here is largely political diplomatic. The White House had a political diplomatic problem. It wanted it solved in the run-up to the war.
And mind you, and I think the data will show this—after the invasion, when it becomes clear in the summer, just a few months after in 2003, that there are no WMD in Iraq. That‘s the summer of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame—my goodness, there are no WMD. Now, the White House is being hit with a charge that they took us to war under false pretenses. That‘s when the frustration is acute.
My question, the question for investigators now: Is how many of these interrogations were driven specifically by a desire to come up with the Saddam/al Qaeda link? It‘s essentially rivers coming together.
This gets—the key issue, certainly in criminal cases: intent. What was driving action? What were they looking for? What was the real impetus? And now, I think, you have your first clear answer that affirms some of the things that we‘ve been hearing.
MADDOW: The prospect that it was being done because of the ticking time-bomb scenario was troubling enough. The prospect that it was being done specifically for political reasons, in order to come up with good information you could spin for political reasons, is just—yes.
I want to raise one other issue about the FBI with you, Ron. It‘s notable that one of the groups of interrogators that isn‘t being singled out here is the FBI. The Levin report says that between the time, for example, with Abu Zubaydah, between the time that he was captured and four months later when those memos said, “Go ahead, torture him,” in effect, FBI interrogators walked out, wouldn‘t participate. The FBI director specifically told his agents not to be a part of it.
What do we know about that decision, about the FBI‘s non-role in this?
SUSKIND: Yes. Well, that‘s been reported, too. It‘s fascinating. The FBI wanted to get in at the start. They essentially said, “Look, we‘re the experts at this.” You know, CIA, you do a different job. We‘re about debriefing.
And, in fact, the FBI was quite successful in interrogating, debriefing al Qaeda members which resulted in all those prosecutions in the 1990s, the ‘93 World Trade Center bombings, the embassy bombings. What‘s fascinating is that essentially FBI got shut out. CIA had a big brother in support of its “take off the gloves” techniques in the White House.
And once the FBI was shut out very early—really, this was happening in early 2002, late 2001. The FBI is saying—hey, guess what? We don‘t want your evolve skills in traditional debriefing, mind you, sophisticated and successful. And at that point, Bob Mueller, I think and it‘s something that he probably feels pretty good about now said, “Well, great, you don‘t want us here? Then, we won‘t be here.”
And he instructed people down the ranks, stay clear. This is going to end badly. And, of course, Bob Mueller ended up being right.
Importantly, though, in terms of the framing of this issue, Rachel, this was not about this being a matter of necessity. There were and are traditional sophisticated debriefing techniques the FBI had used that were successful. It was a choice the administration made not to go with that, to go with what it felt we should do in a very different direction. It had a counterpoint from FBI that it snubbed.
MADDOW: It‘s the only thing they couldn‘t get from traditional techniques was maybe the information that they were looking for that they had developed as their own preconceived notions about a link to Saddam and al Qaeda. That‘s me editorializing, and you don‘t have to endorse it, but thank you, Ron. Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
SUSKIND: You do that part. You do that part.
MADDOW: Thank you.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Ron Suskind—it‘s great to have you on the show. Thank you for your time and your reporting, Ron.
SUSKIND: My pleasure.