Posted on April 17, 2009 in Washington Watch

Despite the Obama Administration’s effort to keep the misdeeds of the Bush White House from becoming a distraction, the issue of torture will not go away.

Last week alone, like water torture, “drip, drip, drip,” the issue played out repeatedly, drawing significant national media attention and fueling an already over-heated partisan debate. All of this has raised concern within the White House that the torture debate cannot be controlled.

During the recent period, there were at least three major torture storylines.

The Torture Photos

The American Civil Liberties Union has been engaged in a long-running Freedom of Information lawsuit, demanding that the Pentagon release over 4,000 prisoner abuse photos in their possession.

Last month, having run out of legal options, the Pentagon agreed to release the photos. At that point, the Obama White House intervened arguing that making the pictures public would pose a “national security risk” threatening the safety of US service men and women–an argument the Bush Administration had failed to make, relying instead on claims of “privacy.”

Liberals were outraged, charging that the President was violating his commitment to transparency and was, in effect, covering up Bush’s war crimes.

While the national security argument does have merit, others suspect a more political motive, sensing that the Obama Administration does not want to see thousands of “Abu Ghraib-type” pictures flooding the international media, drowning out the President’s efforts to advance his agenda–especially as Obama is in the lead up to his much awaited speech in Cairo.

Vice-President Cheney’s Offense and Senate Hearings on Torture.

Since the April 16th release of four Bush-era legal memos justifying the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture), several officials from the previous Administration have come forward to defend these practices. None have been more forceful, or appeared on the national stage more frequently, than Vice-President Cheney. In fact, the Washington Post ran a story last week, accompanied by a chart, showing that Cheney had made more national television appearances in the past month than he had in each of the past eight years in which he served as Vice-President.

Appearing on a number of news shows, Cheney displaying his characteristic use of ridicule and exaggeration, made the claim that the use of “torture” actually produced valuable information that saved “thousands of lives.” He further argued that by ending these practices, the Obama Administration had left America vulnerable to attack and, therefore, less safe.

This challenge provoked some Democrats, as well as a number of former government officials to respond. An so, on May 13th Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, convened hearings on, “What Went Wrong: Torture and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration.”

The two star witnesses of this hearing, who drew the most attention from the national media were Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator who had been in charge of questioning Abu Zubaydah, and Philip Zelikow, who from 2005 to 2007 served as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s legal counsel.

For his part, Soufan refuted Cheney’s claim that “enhanced techniques” produced results. According to Soufan, valuable information from Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was obtained through more traditional, and legal, interrogation procedures used by the FBI. In fact, as Soufan noted, after the CIA took control of the prisoner and began using more rigorous interrogation methods, Abu Zubaydah stopped cooperating. Soufan summed up his critique saying, “I was in the middle of this, and it’s not true that these techniques were effective…we didn’t have to [torture]. We could have done it the right way.”

Zelikow’s testimony was equally damning as he described how he made an aggressive effort to “protest the use” of what he described as an, “unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information.” He regretted that his protests were not heeded.

At the end of the session, Senator Whitehouse made it clear that he intended to convene another hearing noting that, “this is the beginning of an ongoing process.”

And speaking of “ongoing processes,” just look at the week long drama that has unfolded involving the Speaker of the House.

Pelosi Speaks and the GOP Smells Blood

There had been a debate as to whether members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed by the CIA about their use of waterboarding. In an effort to set the record straight, on May 14th Speaker Pelosi speaking to reporters observed that when she had served on the Intelligence Committee, “we were told explicitly that waterboarding was not being used.” She said that she did learn about it, later, from someone else who had been briefed–but that she herself had not been. Facing a torrent of follow-up questions, Pelosi became harsh in her criticism of the CIA saying, “they mislead us all the time.”

With that accusation, the story line shifted. Republicans, sensing an opening, sought to change the discussion from what the Bush Administration did, to what the Speaker said.

The Republican Minority Leader, John Boehner, called on Pelosi to provide proof that the CIA lied to Congress. Some Republicans called on the Speaker to resign, while others denounced her attack on those, “who protect the American people.”

As this story has relentlessly played out over the past six days, three other members of the Intelligence Committee and a former high ranking CIA official have come forward to back up the Speaker’s charge–ensuring that this story will not fade away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, out of the view of this intense debate, there are reports that a Justice Department special counsel (appointed by the Bush Administration) has convened a grand jury and is summoning witnesses to look into the CIA and Justice Department’s behavior during the Bush Administration. And a ranking Republican has called on the FBI to investigate whether or not the CIA misled members of Congress. It is not clear where all this is leading, but what is clear is that this story will continue.

comments powered by Disqus