Friday, May 15, 2009

Dick Cheney's Dreadful Folly

image credit: U.S. Army

Seven years after the Bush Administration used the confessions of tortured prisoners to justify war in Iraq, our soldiers and Iraq's citizens are still paying for this dreadful folly. Here's the caption for this picture:

Spc. Herrick Lidstone, a radio operator with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, takes a security halt during a nighttime foot patrol in Sha'ab, Baghdad on May 4 [,2007].

There was a time when people only half-seriously suggested that the Bush Administration deliberately had terrorism suspects tortured to produce "evidence" that there was a link between Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. As Joe Conason reports in Salon, that's not a joke any more:

In an essay that first appeared on the Washington Note blog, [aide to then Secretary of State Colin Powell Lawrence] Wilkerson says that even when the interrogators of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Libyan al-Qaida operative, reported that he had become “compliant” -- in other words, cooperative after sufficient abuse -- the vice-president’s office ordered further torture of the Libyan by his hosts at an Egyptian prison because he had not yet implicated Saddam with al-Qaida. So his interrogators put al-Libi into a tiny coffin until he said what [Vice President Dick] Cheney wanted to hear. Nobody in the U.S. intelligence community actually believed this nonsense. But now, al-Libi has reportedly and very conveniently "committed suicide" in a prison cell in Libya, where he was dispatched to the tender mercies of the Bush administration's newfound friends in the Qaddafi regime several years ago. So the deceased man won't be able to discuss what actually happened to him and why.

Wilkerson's essay was followed swiftly by an investigative report in the Daily Beast, authored by former NBC News producer Robert Windrem, who interviewed two former senior intelligence officers who told him a similar story about a different prisoner. In April 2003, U.S. forces captured an Iraqi official named Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi, who had served in Saddam's secret police, the Mukhabarat. Those unnamed officials said that upon learning of Dulaymi's capture, the vice-president's office proposed that CIA agents in Baghdad commence waterboarding him, in order to elicit information about a link between al-Qaida and Saddam. Evidently that suggestion was not enforced by Charles Duelfer, the head of the Iraq Study Group who controlled Dulaymi's interrogation.

We Tortured To Justify War

[links from original]

Let's just review this evidence to see why, while this information is based partly on anonymous sources, it is credible.

First, it's not entirely anonymous. We know who Lawrence Wilkerson is. At the time in question, he was the aide of Secretary of State Colin Powell. It's certainly possible that he knew the origin of whatever intelligence he was told about regarding Iraq. He certainly would have asked what the origin of any intelligence was, since that's information necessary to determine its validity.

Wilkerson has also been a critic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy:

In President Bush's first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security -- including vital decisions about postwar Iraq -- were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

When I first discussed this group in a speech last week at the New American Foundation in Washington, my comments caused a significant stir because I had been chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell between 2002 and 2005.

But it's absolutely true. I believe that the decisions of this cabal were sometimes made with the full and witting support of the president and sometimes with something less. More often than not, then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice was simply steamrolled by this cabal.

The White House Cabal

This article by Wilkerson, short though it is, is a thoughtful essay on effective decision making in areas where the relevant knowledge isn't all in one person's head. That's a set of problems that includes most of the ones organizations deal with these days. Business and government leaders at any level should read it and take its lessons to heart. Wilkerson is neither a fool nor stupid.

The second reason is that the story is at least partially confirmed by Charles Duelfer, who as the head of the Iraq Study Group:

In his new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, and in an interview with The Daily Beast, Duelfer says he heard from “some in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA),” who thought Khudayr’s interrogation had been “too gentle” and suggested another route, one that they believed has proven effective elsewhere. “They asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used,” Duelfer writes. “The executive authorities addressing those measures made clear that such techniques could legally be applied only to terrorism cases, and our debriefings were not as yet terrorism-related. The debriefings were just debriefings, even for this creature.”

Cheney's Role Deepens

The third reason we should take this seriously is that it explains the events that followed. The White House, and its sycophants in the press, insisted that there was a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda even though there clearly wasn't one. Hussein clearly had no motivation to do more than give Al Qaeda lip service. He certainly would not have permitted a rival for power to exist on his territory. That's an elementary lesson of Hussein's career - he quickly and ruthlessly eliminated or marginalized all possible competition for his power. Yet we were asked to believe, with no credible evidence, that he welcomed Al Qaeda.

While reaching a definite conclusion really requires a proper criminal or scientific investigation, it's clear that this charge against the Vice President and others is a credible one. It should also be one that Americans find disturbing. That we could have deliberately tortured people as part of a pretense for war is as serious a charge against a government as I can imagine.

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