Bush’s Tortured Legacy

Two major stories, prominently featured in the Washington Post and the New York Times last Sunday, dealt with the Bush Administration’s use of torture. When combined, they raised several important issues.

The front page banner headline in the Washington Post read "Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots," with the subhead continuing "Waterboarding, Rough Treatment of Abu Zubaidah Produced False Leads, Officials Say." Based on extensive interviews with former CIA and Administration officials, the piece examined how the Bush Administration dealt with Abu Zubaidah, a prisoner captured in 2002 in Pakistan. After a four-year stay at a "secret CIA site", he was moved to Guantanamo. While, early on, President Bush heralded the capture of Abu Zibaidah (calling him "a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden"), the story notes how, within weeks of his imprisonment, analysts concluded that he was not an official member of Al-Qaeda, serving more as a "travel agent" for recruits seeking to join the war in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the Post reports that, facing intense pressure from the White House, interrogators were pushed to use torture techniques in an effort to extract information from their prisoner. In the end, they found that the "fruit" of this torture was either information they already had, or was misleading or useless. In the end, they concluded that the practice of torture was, at best, counter-productive.

Despite this conclusion by Abu Zubaidah’s interrogators, the Post story quotes former Vice President Cheney, who continues to assert that "I’ve seen a report that was written, based upon the intelligence that we collected then, that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs."

Cheney, however, refuses to provide any evidence to make his case, refusing even to make it available in a classified setting to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has the legal oversight responsibility in these matters.

It must be noted that the former Vice President’s assertion is, itself, questionable – since he has on too many occasions stretched the truth and fudged facts. (At one point, for example, early in the Iraq War, Cheney mischaracterized the results of a Zogby International poll, claiming that we had found that Iraqis were pleased with the U.S. performance – when, in fact, we had found the opposite!)

Nevertheless, Cheney’s bold statement that torture was used, and that it worked, is important in another context.

As the New York Times reports, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon has lodged a criminal complaint and begun an investigation of six former Bush Administration officials (David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Douglas Feith, and William Haynes II), charging them with possible violations of international law and the 1984 Geneva Convention against torture. Garzon is the same judge who issued an arrest order served in Britain against former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet for crimes committed during his bloody tenure.

All of this is, of course, embarrassing to the U.S., since we have long held ourselves to a high standard, publishing annual human rights reports noting other countries’ violations of rights. And, just this past year, the Times‘ article notes, a U.S. court convicted Chuckie Taylor, son of the former Liberian President, finding him guilty of torture committed in Liberia, and sentencing him to 97 years in jail. Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey said at the conclusion of this trial: "This is the first case in the United States to charge an individual with criminal torture. I hope this case will serve as a model to future prosecutions of this type."

What is interesting in all of this is the fact that with Cheney publicly acknowledging that "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e. torture) were used, the Spanish court should have an easy time making its case. Cheney’s claim that those "techniques" worked, will not impress the court, given that they are illegal in any instance.

The new Obama Administration has its hands full with the troubled world they inherited from their predecessors. With two unfinished wars, continuing conflict in the Middle East and a collapsing world economy, the President has maintained that he does not want his Administration to "look backward, but move forward." And so, to date, they have not been inclined to open their own investigation of Bush Administration practices. However, new revelations like the ones that came out last week, Cheney’s continued defense of acts of torture, and now the initiative of the Spanish court, may yet force the Administration’s hand.