The Iraq-Torture Scandal

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    Bob Fertik
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Earlier today I asked how to name a unique but nameless evil. Bill Harding suggested "crimes against humanity." That's accurate generally, but it's not specific to this particular crime. Ditto for Paul Krugman's simpler word:

the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link. There’s a word for this: it’s evil.

I have a better answer: the Iraq-Torture Scandal.

This is obviously a variation on the infamous Iran-Contra Scandal, the Reagan scandal centered on the illegal sale of U.S. weapons to Iran for cash and hostages to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

Iran-Contra was complicated. There were two full-fledged scandals that appeared to be separate - the illegal arms sale to Iran and the illegal funding of the Contras. What made it a mega-scandal was that the two scandals were directly connected.

And that appears to be exactly the case now. There are two full-fledged scandals: the illegal torture of "war on terror" prisoners starting in 2002 and the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. These two scandals seem to be separate, but there is growing evidence the two were directly connected.

The key question is: were Abu Zubaydah (AZ) and Khalid Sheikh Mohamed (KSM) tortured by the CIA to produce the truth about Al Qaeda - or lies about Iraq that Bush could use as a pretext to invade for other purposes?

A number of journalists are arriving at this conclusion, including Krugman, Keith Olbermann, Rachel MaddowRon Suskind, Frank Rich, and Dan Froomkin. Below is the best evidence I can find. (See detailed timelines at Emptywheel, HistoryCommons, and DailyKos)

1. The torture techniques used on AZ and KSM, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation, were copied from Chinese techniques used on U.S. prisoners during the Korean War to produce false confessions. And in fact their use on AZ and KSM mainly produced false confessions. Did the officials who approved those techniques know that was their designed purpose? Olbermann has asked that question repeatedly for the past few days.

2. Invading Iraq was a top priority of Bush's national security team as early as 1998 when they formed the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). PNAC included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, and Jeb Bush. PNAC argued for strategic regime change in September 2000:

the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein. (p. 14)

3. Bush arrived in office on 1/20/01 with Iraq at the top of his agenda. Bush pushed to overthrow Saddam Hussein at the first Cabinet meeting on 1/30/01, which came as a shock to Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, as reported by Ron Suskind in "The Price of Loyalty." "It was Topic A," O'Neill said. Bush started funding Iraqi opposition forces that day and energetically pursued regime change right up to 9/11.

4. Immediately after the 9/11 attack, Bush harassed Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke to blame 9/11 on Iraq, even though Clarke insisted Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Clarke had written that on September 12, 2001, President Bush pulled him and a couple of aides aside and "testily" asked him to try to find evidence that Saddam Hussein was connected to the terrorist attacks. In response he wrote a report stating there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement and got it signed by all relevant agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA. The paper was quickly returned by a deputy with a note saying "Please update and resubmit".[7] After initially denying that such a meeting between the President and Clarke took place, the White House later reversed its denial when others present backed Clarke's version of the events.[8][9]

Later, Bush told Donald Rumsfeld, "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass." On 9/20, Bush asked Tony Blair to support the removal of Saddam Hussein at a private dinner.

5. Immediately after 9/11, top neocons looked for every possible reason to attack Iraq. On 9/11, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld ordered the military to draw up strike plans for Iraq. On 9/16, Richard Perle went on CNN and explicitly linked Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. On 9/20, PNAC sent Bush a letter urging him to respond to the attacks by retaliating against Iraq.

6. After Bush decided to invade Iraq, he and his administration were willing to say and do absolutely anything to justify the invasion. They deliberately lied about all kinds of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, knowing full well Iraq had absolutely nothing. They deliberately lied about Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, knowing there were absolutely none. They stole $700 million appropriated by Congress for Afghanistan to build airfields to invade Iraq. They secretly and illegally bombed Iraq shortly after and flew into Iraqi airspace repeatedly to provoke an Iraqi attack. When citizens around the world rose up to stop Bush's war, Bush even asked Tony Blair about painting U.S. spy planes in U.N. blue and flying them into Iraqi airspace to provoke an attack on the "U.N." that would get the U.N. to change its mind and authorize a U.S.-U.K. invasion.

7. According to SASC, Pentagon officials began preparing to use torture - or "abusive interrogation techniques" - as early as December 2001. On 1/9/02, John Yoo drafted a memo saying the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, which made it "legal" to torture them. On 2/2/02, State Dept lawyer Taft said Geneva did apply, but on 2/7/02, Bush signed Yoo's memo. (The U.S. Supreme Court later rejected Bush's action.)

8. Al Qaeda member Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured in Pakistan in "late 2001" and sent to Egypt in 1/02. Under torture, he confessed "Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases," as Bush claimed in his Cincinnatti speech 10/02. But the DIA rejected his claim in 2/02. DIA skepticism probably persuaded Cheney to order the CIA to conduct torture (with videotape proof). Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah was captured on 3/28/02 and waterboarded 83 times by the CIA.

9. On 2/13/02, "senior U.S. officials" said President Bush had formally decided to oust Saddam Hussein and order the CIA and Pentagon to prepare. The Pentagon shifted its war planning from Afghanistan to Iraq; Gen. Tommy Franks shocked Sen. Bob Graham with the news that February.

10. A former senior U.S. intelligence official says, "For most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that Chalabi and others had told them were there... There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder." In April 2002, the CIA began videotaping interrogation sessions, some of which apparently included waterboarding. In May 2002, Condi Rice and "other top Bush administration officials" were briefed about "alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding." In July, JPRA sent a memo to DoD general counsel William Haynes warning him that the use of harsh interrogation techniques such as those used in SERE training constituted torture and produce unreliable intelligence. But Rice told CIA Director George Tenet he could use these techniques (7/17) and Ashcroft declared waterboarding legal.

11. In July 2002, CIA Director George Tenet told his British counterpart, Sir Richard Dearlove, the decision had been made to invade Iraq. Dearlove concluded the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." While it has always been assumed the "intelligence and facts" referred to WMD's that didn't exist, it was also true for non-existent Iraq-Al Qaeda ties.

11. Abu Zubaydah was captured on March 28, 2002, and provided accurate and useful information about Al Qaeda under standard FBI interrogation. But in August 2002, the Bush Administration approved false-confession waterboarding by the CIA, and AZ was waterboarded 83 times that month. That was exactly the moment when the White House Iraq Group led by Andy Card needed selling points for its September product rollout.

12. al-Libi's 1/02 torture-induced "confession" that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in WMD use was cited as a crucial reason to invade Iraq in major speeches by Bush in Cincinnatti (10/02) and Powell at the UN (2/03) even though the "confession" was never accepted by the DIA. And Bush's formal notice to Congress authorizing the invasion on 3/18/03 relied on the claim that Iraq "planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

Finally, some of the same people were involved in Iran-Contra and Iraq-Torture, especially Elliott Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra but pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Under George W. Bush, he secretly ran Middle East policy from the bowels of the National Security Council.

The case for an Iraq-Torture Scandal is pretty strong. As the multi-faceted torture investigations proceeds, it may ultimately prove true. And that might make it by far the biggest scandal in American history.

Update 1: Digby is coming to a similar conclusion based on Rachel Maddow's interview with Ron Suskind:

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 [Armed Services Committee] 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.

Suskind refers to the need for Iraq-Al Qaeda lies both before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Before the invasion, Bush had to manufacture a pretext for an unprovoked and illegal invasion. After the invasion and the failure to find WMD's, Bush had an even greater need for Iraq-Al Qaeda lies. KSM was captured just before the invasion on 3/1/03 and was waterboarded 183 times that month.

Update 2: McClatchy's Jonathan Landay covered this ground on Tuesday:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"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 Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.

"There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," he continued.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

Excerpts from Burney's interview appeared in a full, declassified report on a two-year investigation into detainee abuse released on Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Burney's statement "very significant."

"I think it's obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq)," Levin said in a conference call with reporters. "They made out links where they didn't exist."

Levin recalled Cheney's assertions that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer had met Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, in the Czech Republic capital of Prague just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The FBI and CIA found that no such meeting occurred.

A senior Guantanamo Bay interrogator, David Becker, told the committee that only "a couple of nebulous links" between al Qaida and Iraq were uncovered during interrogations of unidentified detainees, the report said.

Update 3: Hunter nails it:

Imagine how monstrous it would be -- how indescribably vile, how shudderingly evil -- if an investigation uncovered evidence that waterboarding was indeed done as futile attempt to find links between al Qaeda and Iraq that never existed. That the hundredth or hundred-fiftieth torture event was undertaken to get "evidence" that the prisoner could never have had to begin with, not after the first session of torture, the second, or the first few dozen.

No, we cannot even think such a thing.

Update 4: Robert Koehler calls it Treason:

Raise your hand, stand up, step forward if you think a deep moral violation has occurred in this scenario: An American president, or at least his primary advisors, circumvent international and domestic law to permit the use of cruel and occasionally fatal interrogation techniques on Muslim detainees (sometimes randomly arrested and completely innocent), not for the purpose of mining them for actual information, which might have national security value, but to get them, sheerly, to lie as instructed.

The question of the moment is now, no longer: Is torture un-American? It is: Are we, as a nation, bigger than our transgressions? Can we establish a commission or an investigation with a moral force greater than the trust that has been debased? Can we face up to what has been done in our name, establish accountability and find a way to atone and change?

Update 5: Scott Horton connects the dots:

1. The impulse to torture had a clear motivation: Cheney and Rumsfeld were increasingly desperate to find evidence that would support their decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

The push for application of torture techniques occurred as the Bush administration scrambled to come up with evidence to support its claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had links to al Qaeda or was pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction. Two major spikes in the use of the harshest techniques occurred in the weeks just before the Iraq invasion and the couple of months after the occupation of Iraq had begun. The first spike coincides with a period of difficulty with America’s principal ally, Britain, shortly following the famous Washington meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in which the latter expressed concern about the lack of evidence supporting claims about a WMD program. Blair had been informed by his attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, that the legal case for invading Iraq was exceedingly tenuous and badly needed to be bolstered with evidence showing an imminent threat coming out of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Also in this period, Vice President Cheney was doing his best to make this case by talking up evidence that proved specious—including reports of a meeting in Prague between an al Qaeda figure and an Iraqi diplomat.

The new documents make plain that interrogators using the new harsh techniques, including waterboarding, were pushing their subjects for information that would justify the Iraq war. For instance, Major Paul Burney, a medical professional attached to interrogation efforts at Guantánamo, told investigators that “we were there a large part of the time. We were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link… there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.” Numerous other sources involved in the interrogation effort recorded the same intense pressure to secure “results” that would justify a decision that had already been taken in Washington to invade Iraq.

In the end, Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to the United Nations to make the case for an invasion of Iraq. The crown jewel of his evidentiary case turned on claims supplied by Ibn al-Shaykh Al-Libi that Saddam Hussein had trained al Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical weapons. Al-Libi had been tortured using the new techniques to secure this evidence. It was subsequently determined to be false—offered up by Al-Libi to escape the torments to which he was subjected with the full understanding that this was what his interrogators wanted to hear. By curious coincidence, as Powell delivered his speech to the U.N. Security Council, a Judiciary Committee hearing room emptied out, and the nominee then under consideration got a free pass to confirmation to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. His name was Jay Bybee, and more than a year later, the public would learn that he had been a principal author of the torture memoranda.

The new reports make clear that torture was used to secure information to justify the invasion of Iraq, but—just as experts from the military and the FBI warned—the information proved false. America’s credibility on the international stage was seriously damaged as a result.