Myths Of The Torture Apologists

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET
  • The Progress Report The Progress Report is the daily policy newsletter of the Center for American Progress Action Fund

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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Last week, President Obama made headlines after suggesting that he would support a "bipartisan" commission to investigate President Bush's torture crimes, days after he released four Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos that detailed torture tactics used by CIA interrogators. These practices include slamming detainees against the wall, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, the use of insects, and "the waterboard." Asked whether Obama should "investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism suspects were treated under the Bush administration," 51 percent of the public said they would favor such an investigation. Meanwhile, advocates of torture -- led by Vice President Cheney -- are doing all they can to fill the public debate with misinformation in an attempt to push back against an investigation of Bush national security policies. After years of promoting secrecy in national security, for example, Cheney recently submitted a formal request for documents that he claims prove his point that torture prevented terrorist attacks. Cheney has also made multiple media appearances defending his and his boss's approval of torture. Today's Progress Report examines some of the myths about torture being promulgated by several Bush administration officials and other conservatives in recent weeks.

MYTH #1: WE DIDN'T TORTURE: One of the most stale lines from the Bush administration was the robotic response to any discussion about torture. "We did not torture," administration officials repeated over and over. The recently-disclosed OLC memos, however, lay that debate to rest, particularly with their authorization of waterboarding.Yet some on the right are continuing to provide political cover for the administration's law-breaking. Former State Department official Liz Cheney, a daughter of Dick Cheney, claimed last week that waterboarding is not torture because similar tactics were used on U.S. troops in SERE training. "Everything that was done in this program, as has been laid out and described before, are tactics that our own people go through in SERE training," she said. But CIA interrogators "used much larger volumes of water" while waterboarding the detainees, leading the CIA Inspector General to conclude that such waterboarding was "neither efficacious or medically safe." Furthermore, U.S. soldiers undergoing SERE training presumably understood there were limits to their experiences undergoing water torture, whereas CIA interrogators waterboarded detainees hundreds of times in one month. In fact, as early as 2002, the military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency warned that the Bush administration's interrogation program was "torture" and that it would produce "unreliable information."

MYTH #2: HARSH INTERROGATION WORKED: The right wing has been trying to frame the debate over torture as a simple question of whether torture "worked" to prevent terrorist attacks. Several, including Bush and Cheney, have claimed that torturing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) helped them foil a plan to blow up the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles. But "an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a 'disrupted plot' was 'ludicrous' -- that plot was foiled in 2002. But KSM wasn't captured until March 2003," Slate's Tim Noah noted. The torture debate has also focused on Abu Zubaydah, a detainee who allegedly disclosed "the fact that KSM was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks" to the CIA only after he was tortured, according to former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. But Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who worked closely with Zubaydah, said the FBI "extracted crucial intelligence -- including the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the architect of 9/11 and the dirty-bomb plot of Jose Padilla -- before CIA contractors even began their aggressive tactics." Zubaydah also "had a schizophrenic personality"; his diaries were written in the voices of three distinct personalities. "How, then, did the C.I.A. conclude that Zubaydah was mentally fit enough to withstand the Agency's coercive techniques?" the New Yorker's Justin Vogt asked.

Several conservatives have also protested the idea of a commission or prosecutions of Bush officials who gave legal cover for torture. Former White House press secretary Dana Perino referred to an investigation as a "political witch hunt." "[M]aybe there's an element of setting old political scores here," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said yesterday. But as journalist Mark Danner observed, "The mystique of torture will only disappear once a cold hard light has been shone on it by trustworthy people who can examine all the evidence and speak to the country with authority." Indeed, what transpired under Bush violates both U.S. statute and international treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory, and an investigation is needed to prevent future abuses of the law. As a first step to achieving accountability, Center for American Progress Action Fund President and CEO John Podesta called for the impeachment of 9th Circuit Court Judge Jay Bybee yesterday. When he was a former top Bush administration lawyer, Bybee signed off on the notorious torture tactics seen in recently-disclosed OLC memos. "Bybee has neither the legal nor moral authority to sit in judgment of others," Podesta wrote in a letter to House Judiciary Commitee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI).