No Comment — June 3, 2009, 10:09 am

Cheney Ran the CIA’s Torture Briefings

We’re now a month past the CIA’s release of a summary to the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning its briefings of Congressional leaders about the introduction of the Bush program of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. Two things emerge at this point. One is that the CIA’s summary is riddled with errors and grossly unreliable. It missed facts as obvious as that Porter Goss had left Congress and was running the CIA, and it lists a substantial number of briefings which never took place. By now, most of the Congressional personnel involved have flagged serious errors, but for a good introduction, watch this clip with Senator Bob Graham on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show (the interview starts at 4:20):

I’m with The Atlantic’s James Fallows on this point:

Graham has a general reputation for honesty. In my eyes he has a specific reputation for very good judgment: he was one of a handful of Senators actually to read the full classified intelligence report about the “threats” posed by Saddam Hussein…. More relevant in this case, Graham also has a specific reputation for keeping detailed daily records of people he met and things they said. He’s sometimes been mocked for this compulsive practice, but he’s never been doubted about the completeness or accuracy of what he compiles.

But that still leaves the question of whether the CIA reports are merely the result of weak memories or whether they were conscious dissembling for a political purpose. On this point, the record is less clear. The mistakes are generally about things on which a memory can fail: who exactly was in the room, what exactly was said. On the other hand, we now know that the CIA memorandum—which leading Democrats are convinced was leaked by individuals close to Republican ranking member Pete Hoekstra—formed the center piece of a sustained, large-scale G.O.P. campaign assailing the credibility of Nancy Pelosi. CIA Director Leon Panetta seems to have had more than a whiff of that, since he released the document with a remarkable cover memo in which he distanced himself from it and suggested it might very well prove inaccurate. (One might well ask why, in that case, Panetta released the document. In retrospect he certainly looks at least a bit foolish for having done so.) A large number of the errors in the CIA chronology do seem tailor-made to serve this political purpose.

But the tactical effort was also inept. The G.O.P. was seeking to head off a Congressional probe or a probe by an independent commission into the introduction of the torture program. But how does highlighting a serious conflict in the factual chronology accomplish that goal? Doesn’t that actually serve to support demands for the inquiry? Indeed, the G.O.P. effort backfired, and demands for an independent probe have continued to build, fueled in part by the G.O.P.’s own talking points.

Now another element of dissembling in the CIA briefings notes has been uncovered. Paul Kane and Joby Warrick of the Washington Post report this morning that the whole briefing effort was personally managed by the highly credible Dick Cheney in order to secure Congressional support for the Bush torture program:

Former vice president Richard B. Cheney personally oversaw at least four briefings with senior members of Congress about the controversial interrogation program, part of a secretive and forceful defense he mounted throughout 2005 in an effort to maintain support for the harsh techniques used on detainees. The Cheney-led briefings came at some of the most critical moments for the program, as congressional oversight committees were threatening to investigate or even terminate the techniques, according to lawmakers, congressional officials, and current and former intelligence officials.

Cheney’s role in helping handle intelligence issues in the Bush administration — particularly his advocacy for the use of aggressive methods and warrantless wiretapping against alleged terrorists — has been well documented. But his hands-on role in defending the interrogation program to lawmakers has not been previously publicized.

Throughout this period, Cheney also repeatedly threatened members of Congress about the personal consequences to them of disclosure of classified information provided in briefings. In retrospect the subtext of those threats is now clear: Cheney was insisting that they not breathe a word about the Bush torture program. The CIA’s decision to suppress these facts in the account they provided the intelligence committee is further evidence of dissembling on a highly material point. But all of this highlights the need for an outside investigation that will probe how Cheney gamed the system with support from the CIA, and how Congressional leaders failed to protect their turf and discharge their constitutional function of oversight.

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More from Scott Horton:

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