Above the Fold: What Would Dick Do?

Kaiser on Newsweek's "What Would Cheney Do?" cover

With just seven days left in our eight-year-long national nightmare, nearly everyone is holding their breath while praying to their favorite gods, hoping against hope that after two disastrous wars and the worst economic devastation since the Depression, the most incompetent administration of the modern era will leave office without causing any additional catastrophe. Everyone, that is, except for the 27 percent of the adult, telephone-owning population, which continues to tell CNN that George Bush has done a good job.

We may now count Newsweek editor-in-chief Jon Meacham among these Undoubting Thomases.

Those of us outside this magic minority have been cataloging the huge questions facing Barack Obama. Will his economic stimulus plan be enough to jump start a devastated economy? Will he keep his promise to make a prompt exit from Iraq? Will he come to his senses and reverse his disastrous campaign pledge to add tens of thousands of new combat troops to the quagmire of Afghanistan? How quickly will he close Guantanamo? And finally–-and, to many of us, most importantly—will his oft-repeated promise to end American torture to restore us to the community of civilized nations become a resounding passage in his Inaugural Address?

However, in Jon Meacham’s judgment, none of those questions matters as much as the one he has placed on the cover of the magazine sitting on thousands of news stands across America this morning. That question is, “What would Dick do?”

Still confused? Here is Mr. Meacham’s explication of that cover line inside the magazine: “the urgent question now is whether President Obama…confronted with the realities of office, will begin to see virtue in the antiterror apparatus Cheney helped Bush create.”

It is true that Newsweek’s cover story makes New York Timesmen Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane look like two of the most sophisticated torture reporters in Washington. And Champagne corks are surely popping on every floor of the CIA’s Langley headquarters, to celebrate this extraordinary triumph of disinformation. However, the story’s “virtues” end there.

Written by Newsweek veteran Evan Thomas and National Journal contributor Stuart Taylor Jr., this article has no connection to serious journalism whatsoever.

Let us examine a few of its highlights:

The issue of torture is more complicated than it seems. America brought untold shame on itself with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. It’s likely that the take-the-gloves-off attitude of Cheney and his allies filtered down through the ranks, until untrained prison guards with sadistic tendencies were making sport with electric shock. But no direct link has been reported.

Leave aside for a moment the comforting image of “making sport with electric shock.” (The ACLU has documented the deaths of at least 160 prisoners in U.S. custody during the Bush administration, of which more than 70 were caused by “gross recklessness, abuse, or torture”: an unfortunate side effect of that “sport,” I suppose.) Let us focus instead on that tossed-off assertion of “no direct link” between Cheney and his allies and what happened on the ground in Iraq and Guantanamo.

The truth is, we know for a fact that all of the most heinous methods of torture used by this administration were aired at White House meetings attended by Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet. George Bush confirmed that those meetings took place in an interview with ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz last year. And just one month ago, Cheney boasted to ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl that he had personally approved of the program which led to waterboarding of alleged terrorists.

As McClatchy reporters Tom Laseter and Matt Shofield have written:

The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan … was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

British human rights lawyer Phillipe Sands wrote in Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values that the decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions

was not a case of following the logic of the law but rather was designed to give effect to a prior decision to take the gloves off and allow coercive interrogation; it deliberately created a legal black hole into which the detainees were meant to fall. The new interrogation techniques did not arise spontaneously from the field but came about as a direct result of intense pressure … from Rumsfeld’s office. The Yoo-Bybee Memo was not simply some theoretical document … but rather played a crucial role in giving those at the top the confidence to put pressure on those at the bottom. And the practices employed at Guantánamo led to abuses at Abu Ghraib.

“The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies.”

Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Richard Addington, former Justice Department lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and former Defense Department counsel James Haynes “became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.”

Finally, there is the summary of the Senate Armed Services Committee released last month: “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.” (For a video summary of this history from Human Rights First, go here.)

Proceeding briskly from unconscionable ignorance to an outrageous conclusion, Newsweek’s Taylor and Thomas praise Bush for vetoing the law that would have required the CIA to use “no investigative methods other than those permitted in the Army Filed Manual” because “these are extremely restrictive.” Indeed, they are restrictive: they are the rules that every previous administration has adhered to since World War II, because they prevent Americans from committing exactly the same kind of war crimes we prosecuted at Nuremberg.

For the record, this is the truth about the torture authorized at the very top of the Bush administration. There is no evidence that it ever produced any useful information, except for the uncorroborated boasts of Cheney and his henchmen. There are more than forty retired admirals and generals who have lobbied congressmen and senators continuously because they know that these methods are not only immoral and illegal but also completely counter-productive. And every experienced Army interrogator agrees that non-coercive methods produce more reliable information than the ones Cheney plucked from the “dark side” in an criminally misguided effort to protect America.

And then there are these words from the American who conducted 300 interrogations in Iraq and supervised 1,000:

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there’s the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives. I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me – unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

That still leaves the administration’s final defense: the fact that there has been no additional terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. The trouble is, this claim obscures the fact that every other administration since Pearl Harbor can boast of the same accomplishment, without having committed any war crimes-–the war crimes of which the Bush administration is certainly guilty , according to retired Major General Anthony Taguba, who authored the official army study of the American outrages committed at Abu Ghraib.

What actually distinguishes this administration from all others is the fact that it is the only one in sixty years that allowed a massive foreign attack on American soil, after repeated and explicit warnings that such an assault was imminent.

Despite the beseeching of Mr. Meacham, FCP remains optimistic that Barack Obama will resist the temptation to emulate any part of this example.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.