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Home / Political News / General Accuses White House of War Crimes

General Accuses White House of War Crimes

white-house.jpgBy Dan Froomkin | The two-star general who led an Army investigation into the horrific detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib has accused the Bush administration of war crimes and is calling for accountability.

In his 2004 report on Abu Ghraib, then-Major General Anthony Taguba concluded that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees.” He called the abuse “systemic and illegal.” And, as Seymour M. Hersh reported in the New Yorker, he was rewarded for his honesty by being forced into retirement.

Now, in a preface to a Physicians for Human Rights report based on medical examinations of former detainees, Taguba adds an epilogue to his own investigation.

The new report, he writes, “tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individual’s lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors.

“The profiles of these eleven former detainees, none of whom were ever charged with a crime or told why they were detained, are tragic and brutal rebuttals to those who claim that torture is ever justified. Through the experiences of these men in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, we can see the full-scope of the damage this illegal and unsound policy has inflicted –both on America’s institutions and our nation’s founding values, which the military, intelligence services, and our justice system are duty-bound to defend.

“In order for these individuals to suffer the wanton cruelty to which they were subjected, a government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored. . . .

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Pamela Hess of the Associated Press has more on the report, which resulted from “the most extensive medical study of former U.S. detainees published so far” and “found evidence of torture and other abuse that resulted in serious injuries and mental disorders.”

The War Council

So if war crimes were committed, who’s responsible?

In today’s installment of a major McClatchy Newspapers series on the U.S. detention system, Tom Lasseter writes: “The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn’t the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers.

“It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

“The Supreme Court now has struck down many of their legal interpretations. It ruled last Thursday that preventing detainees from challenging their detention in federal courts was unconstitutional.

“The quintet of lawyers, who called themselves the ‘War Council,’ drafted legal opinions that circumvented the military’s code of justice, the federal court system and America’s international treaties in order to prevent anyone — from soldiers on the ground to the president — from being held accountable for activities that at other times have been considered war crimes. . . .

“The international conventions that the United States helped draft, and to which it’s a party, were abandoned in secret meetings among the five men in one another’s offices. No one in the War Council has publicly described the group’s activities in any detail, and only some of their opinions and memorandums have been made public. . . .

“Only one of the five War Council lawyers remains in office: David Addington, the brilliant but abrasive longtime legal adviser and now chief of staff to Cheney. His primary motive, according to several former administration and defense officials, was to push for an expansion of presidential power that Congress or the courts couldn’t check.”

The other members were Alberto Gonzales, first the White House counsel and then the attorney general; William J. Haynes II, the former Pentagon general counsel; former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo; and Timothy E. Flanigan, a former deputy to Gonzales.

For more on Addington’s central role, see my Sept. 5, 2007 column; for more on the relationship between the administration’s legal memos and torture, see my April 2 column.

The Senate Investigation

The Senate Armed Services Committee made news with a hearing yesterday — part of its continuing investigation into the administration’s interrogation policies. (Here’s the C-SPAN video.)

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: “A senior CIA lawyer advised Pentagon officials about the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a meeting in late 2002, defending waterboarding and other methods as permissible despite U.S. and international laws banning torture, according to documents released yesterday by congressional investigators.

“Torture ‘is basically subject to perception,’ CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman told a group of military and intelligence officials gathered at the U.S.-run detention camp in Cuba on Oct. 2, 2002, according to minutes of the meeting. ‘If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.’ . . .

“Fredman, whose agency had been granted broad latitude by Justice Department lawyers to conduct harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists, listed key considerations for setting a similar program at the Cuban prison. He discussed the pros and cons of videotaping, talked about how to avoid interference by the International Committee of the Red Cross and offered a strong defense of waterboarding.” . . .

“Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, asked: ‘How on Earth did we get to the point where a United States government lawyer would say that . . . torture is subject to perception?’.”

Levin also introduced evidence that proposed methods faced opposition at the time from experts in military and international law. Warrick writes: “Among them was Mark Fallon, deputy commander of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force. He warned in an October 2002 e-mail to Pentagon colleagues that the techniques under discussion would ‘shock the conscience of any legal body’ that might review how the interrogations were conducted.

“‘This looks like the kind of stuff Congressional hearings are made of,’ Fallon wrote. He added: ‘Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this.'”

The star witness yesterday was Haynes — the former Pentagon general counsel, “War Council” member and Addington protege.

Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times that Haynes “sparred at length with senators seeking to pin on him some responsibility for the harsh tactics and the worldwide outrage they provoked.

“Documents released Tuesday show that some of Mr. Haynes’s aides in July 2002 sought out information about aggressive interrogations.

“Mr. Haynes fended off attacks by Democrats and some Republicans, noting that the Defense Department has 10,000 lawyers and saying he had no time to conduct legal research himself on which methods were permitted.

“Moreover, Mr. Haynes said, ‘as the lawyer, I was not the decision maker. I was the adviser.’

“Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said he thought Mr. Haynes’s advice had led American soldiers drastically astray. ‘You degraded the integrity of the United States military,’ Mr. Reed said.”

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: “If ever there was a case that cried out for enhanced interrogation techniques, it was yesterday’s Senate appearance by the Pentagon’s former top lawyer.

“William ‘Jim’ Haynes II, the man who blessed the use of dogs, hoods and nudity to pry information out of recalcitrant detainees, proved to be a model of evasion himself as he resisted all attempts at inquiry by the Armed Services Committee. . .

“It was the most public case of memory loss since Alberto Gonzales, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, forgot everything he ever knew about anything. And, like Gonzales, Haynes (who, denied a federal judgeship by the Senate, left the Pentagon in February for a job with Chevron) had good reason to plead temporary senility.

“A committee investigation found that, contrary to his earlier testimony, Haynes had showed strong interest in potentially abusive questioning methods as early as July 2002. Later, ignoring the strong objections of the uniformed military, Haynes sent a memo to Donald Rumsfeld recommending the approval of stress positions, nudity, dogs and light deprivation. . . .

“Haynes mixed his forgetfulness with a dash of insolence. He suggested to [Claire] McCaskill [(D-Mo.)] that ‘it’s important that you understand how the Defense Department works.’ He cut off [Jack] Reed [(D-R.I.)] with a ‘Let me finish, Senator!’ and disclosed that he had been too busy to give more attention to the Geneva Conventions: ‘I mean, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of decisions made every day. This was one.'”

Mark Benjamin of Salon offers up a timeline based on the Senate investigation. He writes that “as more and more documents from inside the Bush government come to light, it is increasingly clear that the administration sought from early on to implement interrogation techniques whose basis was torture.

Phil Carter analyzes the new evidence on washingtonpost.com

Adam Zagorin writes for Time: “Despite years of investigation into alleged abuse and death of prisoners in U.S. custody since 9/11, the only Americans held accountable have been the low-ranking ‘bad apples’ convicted for the worst atrocities at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. No official blame has been assigned to higher-ups for abuses at Guantanamo or in Afghanistan, much less for crimes allegedly committed by U.S. personnel in various secret CIA prisons around the world.”

Tim Rutten writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: “Apart from understanding how and why the Bush/Cheney administration tricked the American people into going to war in Iraq, no question is more urgent than how the White House forced the adoption of torture as state policy of the United States.”

Rutten writes that, along with earlier revelations, “the current Senate investigation has established definitively that the drive to make torture an instrument of U.S. policy originated at the highest levels of the Bush administration — mainly in the circle that included Cheney, Rumsfeld and Addington. This group had come to Washington determined to implement its theory of ‘the unitary executive,’ which holds that presidential powers of all sorts have been dangerously diminished since the Vietnam War. The fact that these guys seem to have defined executive branch power as the ability to hold people in secret and torture them pushes the creepy quotient into areas that probably require psychoanalytic credentials.”

Rutten, however, has nothing but scorn for the “handful of European rights activists and people on the lacy left fringe of American politics” who are calling for criminal indictments or war-crime trials.

The White House Line

White House spokesman Tony Fratto repeated the official administration position yesterday: “I’m telling you that abuse of detainees has never been, is not, and will never be the policy of this government. The policy of this government has been to take these detainees and to interrogate them and get the information that we can get to help protect this country, which we have been very successful at doing, and we’ve been very successful at getting the information that has saved lives and prevented attacks on this country and on our allies. . . .

“[W]e do not abuse and we treat detainees humanely and comporting with the law.”

Iraq Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: “U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiating long-term security agreements have reworded a proposed White House commitment to defend Iraq against foreign aggression in an effort to avoid submitting the deal for congressional approval, Iraq’s foreign minister said yesterday.

“The alternative under discussion will pledge U.S. forces to ‘help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves,’ rather than a U.S. promise to defend Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Although ‘it’s the other way around,’ he said, ‘the meaning is the same, almost.’

“Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed agreement, called the change ‘a distinction without a difference.’ Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the accord will constitute a defense treaty requiring congressional ratification and have accused the Bush administration of withholding information on the talks. . . .

“In a document he signed last fall with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush pledged ‘security assurances and commitments . . . to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace.’

“Under sharp questioning from U.S. lawmakers, the administration has insisted that the agreement will be ‘nonbinding’ and can be legally signed by Bush without congressional approval.”

About Those Bases

Kyle Crichton blogs for the New York Times: “In the debate over the future American military role in Iraq, the Bush administration has held firm on one point in particular: there will be no permanent American bases in Iraq. Just last week, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker denied a report in The Independent of London to the effect that the United States was building 50 ‘permanent’ bases.

“But what constitutes a permanent base? Almost anything, it turns out. . . .

“[E]ven though we may never have permanent bases in Iraq, we could very well have some venerable temporary facilities there before we finally depart. . . .

“[A] handful of big bases . . . are already there and looking quite permanent, from the KFC and Burger King outlets, to the car dealerships, to the 6,000- person mess halls.”

Curveball Redux

John Goetz and Bob Drogin write in the Los Angeles Times about catching up with Rafid Ahmed Alwan, the Iraqi informant code-named Curveball.

“[I]n his first public comments, the 41-year-old engineer from Baghdad complains that the CIA and other spy agencies are blaming him for their mistakes. . . .

“It was intelligence attributed to Alwan — as Curveball — that the White House used in making its case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He described what turned out to be fictional mobile germ factories. The CIA belatedly branded him a liar. . . .

“‘I never said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, never in my whole life,’ he said. ‘I challenge anyone in the world to get a piece of paper from me, anything with my signature, that proves I said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.'”

FISA Watch

Manu Raju writes in The Hill: “Senate Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they would not stand in the way of a compromise overhaul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), despite their concerns with the impacts of the sprawling measure.

“Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said some Democrats are ‘not happy with that, but there may be enough to get a majority vote.’ . . .

“Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) predicted Tuesday that there is enough support within the Democratic Conference to approve [the] contentious overhaul. . . .

“The latest development comes after Rockefeller, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the Bush administration reached an accord late last week to break a weeks-long stalemate over balancing electronic surveillance with the right to privacy for American citizens, according to several people familiar with the talks.”

The New York Times editorial board writes: “In the waning months of his tenure, President Bush and his allies are once again trying to scare Congress into expanding the president’s powers to spy on Americans without a court order.

“This week, the White House and Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill hope to announce a ‘compromise’ on a domestic spying bill. If they do, it will be presented as an indispensable tool for protecting the nation’s security that still safeguards our civil liberties. The White House will paint opponents as weak-kneed liberals who do not understand and cannot stand up to the threat of terrorism.

“The bill is not a compromise. The final details are being worked out, but all indications are that many of its provisions are both unnecessary and a threat to the Bill of Rights. The White House and the Congressional Republicans who support the bill have two real aims. They want to undermine the power of the courts to review the legality of domestic spying programs. And they want to give a legal shield to the telecommunications companies that broke the law by helping Mr. Bush carry out his warrantless wiretapping operation.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon yesterday started raising money for broadcast ads targeting Hoyer and “other Congressional enablers” for their support of the ostensible compromise. Greenwald announced this morning that in the first 16 hours of the campaign, more than $70,000 came in.

Bush on Gas Prices

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: “With gasoline topping $4 a gallon, President Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to lift its long-standing ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, saying the United States needs to increase its energy production. Democrats quickly rejected the idea. . . .

“With the presidential election just months away, Bush made a pointed attack on Democrats, accusing them of obstructing his energy proposals and blaming them for high gasoline costs. His proposal echoed a call by Republican presidential candidate John McCain to open the Continental Shelf for exploration. . . .

“Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, rejected lifting the drilling moratorium that has been supported by a succession of presidents for nearly two decades.

“‘This is not something that’s going to give consumers short-term relief and it is not a long-term solution to our problems with fossil fuels generally and oil in particular,’ said Obama. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, lumping Bush with McCain, accused them of staging a ‘cynical campaign ploy’ that won’t help lower energy prices.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: “Mr. Bush has long advocated opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling, and in 2006 signed into law a bill that expanded exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. But the topic of coastal drilling has been an extremely sensitive one in the Bush family; Mr. Bush’s father, the first President Bush, signed an executive order in 1990 banning coastal oil exploration, and Mr. Bush’s brother Jeb was an outspoken opponent of offshore drilling when he was governor of Florida.

“Now, though, President Bush is considering repealing his father’s order… [T]wo people outside the White House said such a move was under serious consideration, and a senior White House official did not dispute their account.”

Writes Stolberg: “With oil selling for more than $130 a barrel and no end in sight to high gasoline prices, Mr. Bush, a former oilman from Texas who came into office vowing to address an impending energy shortage, does not want to end his presidency in the midst of an energy crisis.”

Flood Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: “President Bush pledged housing help and other federal aid to victims of Midwest storms and said he would inspect flood damage in a trip to Iowa on Thursday.

“Briefed on Tuesday by officials involved in the relief effort, Bush also said he would work with Congress on emergency legislation to help replenish a federal emergency disaster fund.”

Safavian Watch

James V. Grimaldi and Del Quentin Wilber write in The Washington Post: “A federal appeals court yesterday ordered a new trial for a former White House aide convicted of obstructing justice and lying, a setback for prosecutors in their four-year-old investigation into the activities of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.”

Karl Rove Watch

Dan Friedman writes for CongressDaily: “House Judiciary Committee Democrats on Monday renewed their demand that former White House political adviser Karl Rove testify publicly on the politicization of the Justice Department but suggested they may accept a compromise in which Rove would be interviewed in private without taking an oath to tell the truth.

“The committee on May 22 subpoenaed Rove to testify at a July 10 hearing on the White House’s role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and his alleged involvement in the prosecution of Don Siegelman, the former Democratic governor of Alabama.

“Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said the White House has ordered Rove not to testify.

“But in a letter sent Monday to Luskin, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said Luskin recently suggested to the committee staff that Rove appear ‘without a transcript or oath,’ but without any limit on the committee’s right to seek sworn testimony later.

“Luskin’s proposal diverges from a White House offer to allow former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to appear for a similar interview on the condition the committee not seek future testimony from her, the letter said.

“‘This is an important step forward,’ Conyers and Sanchez said of Luskin’s proposal. ‘We are encouraged by this suggestion,’ they added. . . .

“Nonetheless, the letter by Conyers and Sanchez also called a request by Luskin that the interview covers only the Siegelman matter and not the U.S. attorney firings ‘unacceptable.'”

Peter Stone writes in National Journal: “To judge from his public persona, former White House senior adviser Karl Rove is devoting the lion’s share of his time to analyzing the presidential campaign as an on-air commentator for Fox News and in columns for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets; restarting his political consulting firm; writing a book; and giving speeches nationwide.

“Rove has strongly suggested he has largely eschewed dispensing advice to the campaign of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain or to outside political groups seeking to influence the November elections.

“But away from the spotlight, Rove has been busy pitching in by giving informal advice to McCain’s team and spending a considerable amount of time as an outside adviser to Freedom’s Watch, the conservative political group that is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to help elect House GOP candidates. . . .

“One prominent GOP strategist says that Rove’s various behind-the-scenes efforts for McCain and Freedom’s Watch are aimed at bolstering the Bush administration’s sagging fortunes, helping Republicans in a tough election year, and protecting his own place in history. Rove, who was a key architect of George W. Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and 2004, is ‘trying to vindicate the Bush administration by electing a Republican president,’ the GOP source said. ‘This is very personal for Karl.'”

Poll Watch

Harris Interactive reports: “The latest Harris Poll finds the nation in a foul political mood. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all register their worst ratings ever. More people than ever also think the country is on the wrong track. . . .

“President Bush’s latest ratings are 24 percent positive and fully 75 percent negative. Previously, his worst numbers were 26 percent positive and 72 percent negative in April of this year. His ratings are substantially worse than those of any president, except for Jimmy Carter (22%-77% in July 1980), since Harris first started measuring them in 1963.

“Vice President Cheney’s ratings are even worse, 18 percent positive and 74 percent negative, compared to his previous low of 21 percent positive, 74 percent negative last July.”

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