It's a oft-repeated maxim of the Bush administration: repeat the talking points over and over again and they become conventional wisdom, whether or not they bear any semblance of truth. As part of the Legacy Rehab Tour, Vice President Dick Cheney sits down with Wolf Blitzer and unleashes the standard White House talking points about torture.
What we were attempting to do, and what we did was to persuade these individuals who had a lot of intelligence and information about al Qaeda -- remember, we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in, I think it was, spring, March of '03, in Karachi. At the time we didn't know a lot about al Qaeda. On 9/11 we didn't know a lot about al Qaeda. If Dick Clarke was such an expert, how come he didn't have all of this information about al Qaeda when he was running the counterterrorism program? The fact of the matter is that we were able to persuade them to cooperate, to give us the intelligence we needed, and to give us the base of understanding about al Qaeda, about personnel and operations and financing and geography and so forth that was essential in terms of defending our country against further attacks. Now you don't go in and pull out somebody's toenails in order to get them to talk. This is not torture. We don't do torture.
Hmmm....interesting revisionist history. Cheney throws Richard Clarke under, claiming even he did not know much about al Qaeda, which is manifestly untrue, given that Clarke warned the Bush administration again and again that al Qaeda was the number one threat the US faced and was summarily brushed off. Maybe if he had managed to give them something "actionable" (after all, "Bin Laden determined to strike in the US" doesn't tell them which flight to ground or which airport to put troops in, does it?), Cheney might have taken Clarke more seriously...or maybe they would have gone ahead with their cherry-picking intelligence and ignored him anyway. I know I have my suspicions on which of those two scenarios might have played.
Nevertheless, Cheney insists that they only 1) waterboarded three people; 2) they got actionable intelligence that saved American lives and prevented another attack; and 3) it's not torture anyway.
Again, given his pattern of candor and transparency, I'm not sure why Cheney thinks we should take his word for anything. Certainly, the CIA has admitted to waterboarding three people...but only after they denied it over and over. This report certainly questions that number:
Firstly, if it’s true that only three detainees were subjected to waterboarding, then why did a number of “former and current intelligence officers and supervisors” tell ABC News in November 2005 that “a dozen top al-Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to Eastern Europe” were subjected to six “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” instituted in mid-March 2002?
Given the careful rhetoric, Cheney might be weaseling past the fact that the CIA waterboarded only those three AQ suspects and leave out that we contracted out the rest of the torturing or that the CIA waterboarded other non-AQ suspects. As to the "actionable intelligence" received by such procedures:
According to the ABC News report, one other detainee who was waterboarded was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the director of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, who was captured in November 2001. His current whereabouts are unknown, although there are suspicions that he was finally delivered to the Libyan government. Having slipped off the radar, the government clearly does not want his case revived, not only because it may have to explain what has happened to him, but also because, as a result of the application of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” al-Libi claimed that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Al-Libi’s “confession” led to President Bush declaring, in October 2002, “Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases,” and his claims were, notoriously, included in Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. The claims were of course, groundless, and were recanted by al-Libi in January 2004, but it took Dan Cloonan, a veteran FBI interrogator, who was resolutely opposed to the use of torture, to explain why they should never have been believed in the first place. Cloonan told Jane Mayer, “It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq … The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way.”
Of course there's also Murat Kurnaz:
Kurnaz said he was also subjected to waterboarding and electric shock. And that beatings were routine and constant. He theorizes that much of the torture was a result of the failure of the American soldiers and agents to capture any real terrorists in the initial sweeps. (He was told that he was sold to the Americans for $3,000 by Pakistani police, who identified him as a terrorist). ‘They didn’t have any big fish. And they thought that by torture they could get one of us to say something. “I know Osama” or something like that. Then they could say they had a big fish.
And as for the notion of waterboarding not being torture...really? How many sentient beings actually believe that? Let me let Chris Hitchens (who has historically little to argue with the Bush administration when it comes to the War on Terror), who experienced waterboarding himself, say it:
Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
And finally, there was one thing that really threw me. At the end of the interview, Blitzer asks if Cheney would order waterboarding again, and Cheney demurs that he wasn't in the chain of command. What's that again? I could have sworn that Mr. Fourth Branch of Government just placed any and all blame for waterboarding on George W. Bush solely. Funny, that's not what he said to the Washington Times last week.
Transcripts below the fold
BLITZER: We're out of time, but a quick couple of questions and then I'll let you go. Waterboarding, it was used how many times?
CHENEY: It was on three different individuals.
BLITZER: And the information you believe that was received was valid?
CHENEY: I do.
BLITZER: It stopped -- you stopped using it after, what, 2003?
CHENEY: There has not been an occasion since.
CHENEY: There has not been an occasion.
BLITZER: Is it -- there no need?
CHENEY: I'm just going to leave it that way. You know, when we get into talking about the application of specific techniques to prisoners, then we get into the business of signaling to our adversaries what we might or might not do and they can train for it. It has been publicly acknowledged that we did use waterboarding. That we did use it on three different individuals. And I believe it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, and one other, I think al-Nashiri. Those three individual were subjected to waterboarding during the course of their interrogation. But that's it.
BLITZER: Because I've always been perplexed, if it is so good and so useful, there are bad guys out there right now, why not continue to use it?
CHENEY: Well, you don't use it on somebody because he's a bad guy. What we were attempting to do, and what we did was to persuade these individuals who had a lot of intelligence and information about al Qaeda -- remember, we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in, I think it was, spring, March of '03, in Karachi. At the time we didn't know a lot about al Qaeda. On 9/11 we didn't know a lot about al Qaeda. If Dick Clarke was such an expert, how come he didn't have all of this information about al Qaeda when he was running the counterterrorism program? The fact of the matter is that we were able to persuade them to cooperate, to give us the intelligence we needed, and to give us the base of understanding about al Qaeda, about personnel and operations and financing and geography and so forth that was essential in terms of defending our country against further attacks. Now you don't go in and pull out somebody's toenails in order to get them to talk. This is not torture. We don't do torture.
BLITZER: John McCain says it's torture.
CHENEY: Well, John is wrong. He and I have a fundamental disagreement on this point. But what the agency did was they sought formal guidance from the senior leadership of the administration, as well as the Justice Department in terms of what was appropriate and what wasn't. And they got that guidance. And they followed that guidance, as far as I know. I have no reason to believe anybody out at the agency violated any tenet of the obligations and responsibilities we have in terms of statutes or our treaty obligations. I think it was done very professionally. I think it was done very few times, when it was necessary. I think it produced good results. I think there are Americans alive today because we used that technique on those three individuals.
BLITZER: And if necessary, would you authorize it again?
CHENEY: Well, I'm not in the chain of command, but if necessary, I would certainly recommend it again.