iOS app Android app More

Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer

Posted March 31, 2009 | 05:52 AM (EST)

Why the War Crimes?


Sunday's Washington Post article, recapitulating much of Ron Suskind's earlier reporting, that Abu Zubaydah wasn't the feared number 3 of Al-Qaeda, and that the intelligence he spilled after being waterboarded was all junk, was--or should be--the last step in removing the scales from the eyes of all but the Cheney retainers. Along with the outing of the International Red Cross report, which clearly and unequivocally called "enhanced interrogation" what it is--torture, the Post piece and Dan Froomkin's accompanying blog post make the case a slam dunk that our previous administration committed war crimes.

But why? Why persist in a policy that, according to the Post, wasted the time of FBI and CIA officers chasing down false leads, wasting millions, and didn't make us any safer, all the while proudly boasting the opposite? Col. Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, offered a partial answer in a blog post three weeks ago. In it, Wilkerson asserts that high officials at State knew early on that most Guantanamo inmates were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong zip code, people who were rounded up and delivered to Americans because we were paying cash money for bodies in and around Afghanistan, and warlords and their friends were more than eager to settle some scores while replenishing the old coffers.

More importantly, he suggests why the knowledge that "the worst of the worst" were really innocent was no impediment to the continued incarceration and interrogation of these people: an intelligence program called Mosaic, in which even innocents could contribute useful shreds of information--where were the mailboxes on their street?--that could combine with actual intel to paint a broader picture.

That doesn't explain, however, the case of Abu Zubaydah, known to higher-ups to be wasting time and resources with bogus intel just to stop the horror. Why persist with the charade? Froomkin cites one possible reason:


But according to (author Ron) Suskind, even as Bush was publicly proclaiming Zubaida's malevolence, he was privately being briefed about doubts within the intelligence community regarding Zubaida's significance -- and mental stability. Suskind quotes the following exchange between Bush and then-CIA director George Tenet:


"'I said he was important,' Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. 'You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?'

"'No Sir, Mr. President.'"

Well, he does have a nice face, shame to lose any of it. More substantively, the Bush administration had one clear, unambiguous message after 9/11. You may remember the mantra. It was, "everything has changed". It was specious, of course, most of our lives are resolutely the same as before the attack, except for the necessity of putting up with bad security theater at the airport while cargo whizzes through our seaports uninspected. But the underlying message of that mantra was that 9/11 didn't represent a failure of the government to connect the dots, to be alert to, and correlate the fusillade of warnings that was famously setting terrorism advisor Richard Clarke's "hair on fire" in the summer of 2001, that John Ashcroft's reported statement to the interim head of the FBI that he didn't want to hear any more warnings about terrorism didn't reflect a systemic failure.

In the post-9/11 world, the gloves had to come off. The fault was in the silly restrictions that prevented tough-minded people from doing what had to be done. If the criticism from the 9/11 commission and other critics was that the dots hadn't been connected, in the new world we would connect anything that even looked like dots, and where there weren't dots, we'd create some. You want dots? We got 'em.

So, an administration that showed a public face that professed a belief that every human life was sacred was prepared to treat innumerable humans as nothing more than fodder for the dot machine, merely to prove that the horrific attack in its eighth month in office couldn't possibly have been its fault.

So the mantra from Bush supporters the past year has been "he kept us safe for seven and a half years," as if the first half year doesn't count, because "everything has changed."

That's a credible defense in a war-crimes trial, right?