No Comment — May 4, 2009, 1:03 pm

Rice and Bellinger Push Back

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary of the approval process showed National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her legal counsel John Bellinger smack in the middle of the decisions to use waterboarding. Now comes the pushback, in the form of a narrative by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane in the New York Times. Mazzetti and Shane base their account on “interviews with more than a dozen former Bush Administration officials.” But reading through the chronology, one story seems to be absolutely focal–that of John Bellinger.

John B. Bellinger III, who, as the National Security Council’s top lawyer, played a role in discussions when the program was approved in 2002, by the next year had begun to research past, ill-fated British and Israeli discursions into torture and grew doubtful about the wisdom of the techniques. Mr. Bellinger shared his doubts with his boss, Ms. Rice, then the national security adviser, who began to reconsider her strong support for the program.

The Times chronicles a struggle over the proposed reintroduction of harsh techniques in which Rice-Bellinger prevailed in July 2007 with a decision that banned forced nudity and set stronger rules for sleep deprivation. The timing and circumstances of this account strike me as terribly self-serving.

It may still be an accurate portrayal of a battle inside the White House. But isn’t it odd that the struggle is portrayed so late? Where were Rice and Bellinger on the front end, in the NSC, when the initial spectrum of harsh measures was put through? Is it really credible for Rice to claim that she was not a decision maker, that her role was that of a glorified postmaster?

On the other hand, Steven G. Bradbury, the unconfirmed acting head of OLC during this period, is cast in a decidedly bad light. Even after the Supreme Court decision in Hamdan confirming the application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Bradbury was happy to give the green light to the whole palette of torture techniques other than waterboarding. The Times says that “some” officials were “shocked” by his 2006 memorandum. But who exactly? This is one of the points in which the Times is too coy with its sourcing. The whole relationship between the Bush White House and the Office of Legal Counsel badly needs to be fully exposed.

These disclosures serve to highlight the need for a commission that has full access to the NSC records and can interview all the participants. And they show the wisdom of Colin Powell in pointing to the need to get the NSC documents and get it all out on the record. Then some final conclusions can be drawn. Until then, count me among the skeptics.

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