Torture Worked to Sell the Iraq War

Three cheers for Dick Cheney. The former vice president has urged, however rhetorically, that the Obama administration release more of the torture memos. “One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos, the memos that the CIA got from the Office of Legal Counsel, but they didn’t put out the memos that showed the success of the effort,” the former vice president told FoxNews.

    “I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was.”

    News reports differ as to whether Mr. Cheney has formally made the request, but he is absolutely right that the American people need to see the complete record. He is wrong about what the record will show. From the material already released or ferreted out by journalists, it is clear that he and Mr. Bush succeeded in using torture, not primarily to secure needed intelligence, but to create the propaganda they used to sell their invasion of Iraq.

    The evidence comes from a variety of sources, including the report on the military’s treatment of detainees, which Sen. Carl Levin’s Armed Services Committee has just released. The report revealed that Pentagon officials began preparing to use torture – or “abusive interrogation techniques” – as early as December 2001. This was less than two months after the start of the war in Afghanistan and eight months before the Department of Justice gave legal authorization in two memos dated August 1, 2002, and signed by Jay Bybee, then-assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel. The first memo redefined physical and mental torture and suggested that the president, acting pursuant to his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, could override the federal anti-torture statute. The second analyzed and approved specific interrogation tactics, including isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding, which makes the victim feel that he is drowning.

    If not the Justice Department lawyers, who gave the earlier go-ahead? The Senate report puts the onus directly on the decider-in-chief, President George W. Bush. He issued a written determination on February 7, 2002, “that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees.”

    Former White House terrorist adviser Richard Clarke has confirmed that Mr. Bush gave an informal go-ahead even earlier. According to Clarke’s account in his book, “Against All Enemies,” Bush addressed his national security advisers late on September 11, 2001. “We are at war and we will stay at war until this is done,” Bush told them. “Any barriers in your way, they’re gone.” Later he added in a heated exchange with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”

    The Senate report also pointed the finger at Mr. Cheney and other top officials of the Bush administration. “Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed,” the committee concluded. “National Security Council principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.”

    Why so much attention from the top? McClatchy news has provided the obvious answer. According to a former senior US intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist, the Bush administration wanted “to find evidence of cooperation between al-Qaeda and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

    “There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” said the former official. “The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

    In part to get that smoking gun, the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times and Abu Zubaydah 83 times. But neither man told the interrogators what Bush and Cheney wanted to hear about Iraq and al-Qaeda. That came from Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, whom the Bush administration sent to Egypt for what CIA Director George Tenet called “further debriefing.” As PBS Frontline reported back in November 2007, al Libi “confessed” – after being beaten repeatedly and locked in a small box for some 17 hours – that Saddam Hussein had trained al-Qaeda in chemical weapons. Al Libi later retracted his statement and the CIA later rejected it as reliable intelligence. But the torture of al Libi worked to sell the war in Iraq, providing the “evidence” that Secretary of State Colin Powell used when he spoke before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

    “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda,” Powell asserted. “Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.”

    Torture might not work as well as conventional interrogation to provide sound intelligence, but it certainly worked for Bush and Cheney in exactly the way they most wanted.

Steve Weissman