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The Media (Finally) Talk About Torture

April has seen a series of media revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

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At some point following the March 2002 capture of Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, comprised of several Bush administration officials at the highest level, met in the White House to discuss and ultimately authorize brutal interrogation techniques on detainees. At one point during the proceedings, according to recent revelations by ABC News, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft asked, "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

You know you’re in trouble when John Ashcroft is the most moderate voice in the room; it’s rather like having Keith Richards plot your addiction intervention. (This actually happened to the late Gram Parsons, but that’s another story.) Truer words have perhaps never been spoken in the presence of the men and women who plotted this nation’s worst strategic catastrophe in its history. April has hardly been a kind month for the Bush administration, as tenacious reporting has revealed a good deal of information about who authorized what torture methods, and when.

In early April, Phillipe Sands, an international lawyer and professor at University College London, published "The Green Light" in Vanity Fair. The piece outlines the methods of interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and the Bush administration’s involvement in painstaking detail. Sands reports that a delegation of administration lawyers traveled to the base in September 2002; "[t]he group included the president’s lawyer, Alberto Gonzales … Vice President Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington … the C.I.A.’s John Rizzo, who had asked for a Justice Department sign-off on individual techniques … and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld’s counsel." Needless to say, that group of lawyers has a pretty powerful client list, and they ultimately left Guantanamo with this instruction: "Do whatever needed to be done."

Sands also reveals the stunning fact that the Fox network’s hit show 24 actually influenced some of the group’s policy-making decisions. "The first year of Fox TV’s dramatic series 24 came to a conclusion in spring 2002, and the second year of the series began that fall. An inescapable message of the program is that torture works. ëWe saw it on cable,’ [one official] recalled. ëPeople had already seen the first series. It was hugely popular.’ Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantanamo, [the official] added. ëHe gave people lots of ideas.’" (Another bit of absolutely morbid comedy was added to this tale when Sands reported that then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith claimed that only "assholes" were worried about torture and how it related to America’s "moral authority.")

The Pentagon this month was forced to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests by releasing documents authored by John Yoo, then of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council, and now of the University of California at Berkeley Law School, that dovetail on Sands’ findings. The documents gave "military interrogators broad authority to use extreme methods in questioning detainees and argued that wartime powers largely exempted interrogators from laws banning harsh treatment."

The memos shocked legal experts, as they "tripp[ed] lightly over what should be boulders," as Slate’s Emily Bazelon put it. The memos asserted with "glib certainty" that the president simply has all of the war-making power, which extends to interrogations, and Congress has none. Everyone at Guantanamo—any enemy aliens, for that matter—have no constitutional or international protections.

The memos, later partially rescinded, outline the thinking behind many of America’s initial torture policies, and will no doubt be important parts of the historical record. Although Yoo denies it because he "doesn’t know it as a fact," his rationale in the Gitmo memos appears to have been applied in Iraq at Abu Ghraib.

Months after Yoo’s memos, Major General Antonio M. Taguba issued a report citing numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib. In the summer of 2003, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger investigated the Abu Ghraib torture atrocities and declared they, indeed, had "migrated" from Guantanamo Bay.

More revelations about how the Unites States’ interrogation polices were authorized have followed Sands’ report. On April 9, ABC News broke the news that the most senior Bush administration officials discussed and approved specific, brutal interrogation practices used by the CIA. The principals included Vice President Dick Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft. The group got into specific details of interrogations, going as far as specifying how often certain tactics could be used.

The committee was briefed on the interrogation plan for Zubaydah, for example, and ultimately signed off on a set of methods the CIA was allowed to use. What we don’t know yet is who, if anyone, objected to the plan. Zubaydah was one of three detainees whom CIA has admitted waterboarding, leading Ashcroft to make his now prophetic announcement.

ABC News, along with the Associated Press, followed up on the story over the next few days with admirable tenacity. The network reported that during the meetings, Condoleezza Rice effectively ignored concerns voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell, instructing the CIA, "This is your baby. Go do it."

The AP also reported, on April 11, that the principles "took care to insulate President Bush" from the decisions made during their meetings. ABC News asked the president about the meetings and he explained "Yes, I’m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."

People have been indicted for less…

The New Yorker and Washington Post have long reported on the agency’s "enhanced interrogation" methods and Dana Priest has reported on CIA black sites, to name just two. This recent reporting fills out the picture of a country whose moral compass has all but ceased to function.

And yet, as Glenn Greenwald recently observed, stories with the words "Yoo" and "torture" appeared 102 times during the two weeks the story was developing, according to NEXIS, which is one-tenth as often as "Obama" and "bowling" appeared over the same time period. ("Obama" and "Wright" overloaded the NEXIS system, appearing more than 3,000 times).

History will not likely be so kind…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, "Altercation," appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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