Bush aide has denial down pat

Allegations of torture dismissed

Sheldon Alberts

Say this much for Dana Perino, the White House press secretary — she faced the braying media hounds yesterday with her talking points down pat.

“The policy of the United States is not to torture,” she told reporters at the daily press briefing.

Then again, a moment later, “I will reiterate to you once again that we do not torture.”

And finally, for good measure, “The bottom line is that we do not use torture.”

Seven times in all, the spokeswoman for U.S. President George W. Bush denied her boss was the fingernail-pulling, waterboarding bad guy The New York Times made him out to be in yesterday’s editions. It was tough work.

Her semantic gymnastics aside, Perino confirmed the existence of a secret February, 2005, memo approved by then-attorney-general Alberto Gonzales that gave a green light to the toughest interrogation tactics in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The memo, signed just after Gonzales took control of the Justice Department, explicitly authorized the use of head-slapping, simulated drowning and exposure to frigid temperatures against detainees, sometimes in rapid succession.

According to a front-page story in the Times, he did so against the specific objections of his then-deputy, James Comey, who warned colleagues they would be “ashamed” if the details became public.

Not only did Gonzales ram the memo down the throats of concerned Justice Department employees, he did so less than two months after they had publicly forsaken torture as “abhorrent” and contrary to U.S. law.

The Bush administration has been playing an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Congress over acceptable methods of interrogation since the 9/11 terror attacks.

Bush has said Geneva conventions prohibiting the mutilation, cruel treatment and torture of detainees do not apply to al-Qaeda members.

Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel seemed to agree. In a 2002 memo to Gonzales, then White House counsel, it claimed Bush was not bound by federal anti-torture laws and argued that anyone using tactics authorized by the President could not be prosecuted.

Moreover, the memo argued cruel and degrading treatment was not illegal so long as it did not produce physical pain equivalent to organ failure or death or mental pain causing lasting psychological damage.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal triggered a marked shift in public — and congressional — opinion. In 2005, U.S. lawmakers passed the Detainee Treatment Act, which explicitly banned “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of prisoners.

Word of the new memo is significant because critics say it reveals a deliberate Justice Department attempt to sidestep the congressional legislation.

Even before the Detainee Treatment Act was passed, officials there were looking for a way out by contending none of the approved CIA tactics violated provisions in the law.

“It appears that under attorney-general Gonzales, [officials at the Justice Department] reversed themselves and reinstated a secret regime by, in essence, reinterpreting the law in secret,” said Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator who is chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.

Brian Roerhkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department, denied any clandestine attempt to bypass broader prohibitions against torture.

“Neither attorney-general Alberto Gonzales nor anyone else within the department modified or withdrew that opinion,” he said.

But the Justice Department and the White House are treading in murky water here. Is there a difference between “waterboarding” — pouring water over the hooded head of a prisoner –and the “simulated drowning” authorized in the classified memo?

Perino declined to offer details of what that particular tactic entailed. “What I can tell you is that any procedures that they use are tough, safe, necessary and lawful,” she said.