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The Torture Presidency


The last hundred days of any presidency are frequently known as “legacy time.” The die may be cast, but the occupant of the White House begins making plans to leave and wonders inevitably about how he will be seen by posterity. So what image will dominate the Bush presidency? The Iraq War? The management of Hurricane Katrina? The meltdown of the financial markets? I believe one issue is likely to shape the historical perception of the Bush 43 presidency: torture. And as Team Bush prepares its spectacular finale, its darkest secrets keep bubbling to the surface. Just two weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice’s lawyer, John Bellinger, confirmed to Senator Levin that Rice led the discussions at Principals’ Committee meetings of the NSC with Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Cheney and others at which specific torture practices were okayed. On Monday, the producers of a new documentary (airing Thursday night on WNET) posted a U.S. military memorandum confirming administration authorization the use of torture techniques as part of the standard operating procedures for prisoners at Guantánamo. And today, the Washington Post drops another bombshell:

The Bush Administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency’s use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qaeda suspects — documents prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public. The classified memos, which have not been previously disclosed, were requested by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet more than a year after the start of the secret interrogations, according to four administration and intelligence officials familiar with the documents. Although Justice Department lawyers, beginning in 2002, had signed off on the agency’s interrogation methods, senior CIA officials were troubled that White House policymakers had never endorsed the program in writing.

These memos were issued to induce the CIA to adopt the harsh techniques over blowback from the agency which questioned whether the White House was prepared to commit in writing to their use. From the perspective of a future criminal investigator, this may be a significant point.

Rice wrote that she had concerns about whether the program was lawful and that she asked for Attorney General Ashcroft’s advice on this point. The report notes that the Criminal Division at Justice was asked to look into the question. This element of the report is significant for two reasons. First, it appears that a major part of this exercise was to involve the Criminal Division to get an “estoppel effect.” Policy makers could say they relied on the statements of the Criminal Division in undertaking the use of torture, and therefore the Criminal Division could not prosecute them. Second, the head of the Criminal Division at this time was Michael Chertoff and his senior deputy, who succeeded him, was Alice Fisher. Chertoff, appearing in connection with his appointment as Homeland Security secretary, brushed off accounts linking him to the introduction of the torture techniques. His testimony has been challenged repeatedly, and the new report is likely to fuel arguments that he misled Congress. Fisher likewise seems to be drawn ever-closer to the torture issue. Chertoff and Fisher appeared to have headed off a criminal investigation that the FBI launched into the introduction of torture practices at Guantánamo. And the current report appears to link them to the decision to introduce torture, suggesting that the criminal investigation may have come back to a focus on their own conduct. Clearly, in the Bush years the term “Criminal Division” took on a whole new meaning.

In the meantime, expect much more to float to the surface before January 21, 2009 comes around. People may find some very interesting documents as they clean off their desks. Hopefully they’ll realize their responsibility to share them with the rest of us.

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