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Jan 05 2014

Did Bush Lie About Approving Torture?

John Rizzo, the longtime legal counsel for the CIA who was at the center of the agency’s torture regime, has a new memoir out in which he says that George W. Bush was lying when he claimed to have personally approved the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA against many detainees.

Rizzo’s most remarkable account concerns President Bush. Essentially, Rizzo concludes that Bush has lately invented a memory of himself as someone who was well informed and decisively in favor of waterboarding certain Al Qaeda prisoners, when, as far as Rizzo can tell, Bush seems not to have known at the time what the C.I.A. was doing.

In “Decision Points,” his 2010 memoir, Bush recalled that George Tenet provided a list of brutal interrogation techniques the C.I.A. proposed to use, and that Bush overruled “two that I felt went too far.” Later, when Tenet asked the President directly if he could employ waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush wrote that he answered, “Damn right.”

Yet, according to Rizzo, “The one senior U.S. Government national security official during this time—from August 2002 through 2003—who I did not believe was knowledgeable about the E.I.T.s was President Bush himself. He was not present at any of the Principals Committee meetings … and none of the principals at any of the E.I.T. sessions during this period ever alluded to the President knowing anything about them.”

Some of the chronology of events related to the C.I.A. interrogations that Bush provides in “Decision Points” doesn’t compute, according to Rizzo. Also, Rizzo would certainly have known if Bush had banned two techniques, but Rizzo has “no idea” what Bush might have been referring to in his memoir. Throughout this period, Rizzo, as he remembers it, was in daily contact with George Tenet, who said “nothing about any conversations he had with the president about E.I.T.s, much less any instructions or approvals coming from Bush.”

Rizzo writes, “It simply didn’t seem conceivable that George [Tenet] wouldn’t have passed something like that on to those of us who were running the program.” Rizzo got in touch with Tenet while preparing “Company Man” and Tenet confirmed “that he did not recall ever briefing Bush” on specific interrogation techniques being used at C.I.A. prisons. “I have to conclude that the account in Bush’s memoir simply is wrong,” Rizzo concludes.

Rizzo finds “the episode perplexing but nonetheless admirable on Bush’s part.” Typically, Presidents distance themselves from controversial C.I.A. programs, but, in “Decision Points,” Bush “put himself up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era when, in fact, he wasn’t,” thus taking responsibility.

But as the indispensable Marcy Wheeler notes, Rizzo has in the past admitted that the president had explicitly authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Al Qaeda detainees. And his history of being honest on such matters isn’t exactly stellar.

There are, as there always are with John Rizzo’s claims, obvious gimmicks. He apparently discusses the period from August 2002 — the date when DOJ’s OLC authorized torture for Abu Zubaydah, at which point much, if not all of the techniques approved, had already been used on him — through 2003, the year before Bush issued a second authorization for the torture program in Tenet’s last days. The key authorizations from the White House came before August 2002, as the torture was happening (and Coll should review these details if he wants to review Rizzo’s memoir competently). And we know Tenet did record Bush’s authorization for the program — he did it in a document Rizzo handled.

Marcy also says that “if Bush really was ignorant about the torture program, then it means the entire thing was illegal.” But of course, it was illegal whether Bush authorized it or not under the UN Convention Against Torture, which is the law of the land in this country.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    matty1

    OT but you have got to get on this one. Steven Segal is considering going into politics and running for Arizona Governor on an anti-immigrant platform. That’s got to be at least a months worth of Dispatches right there.

  2. 2
    ttch

    Those approving waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” would really appear more consistent if they publically insisted, for example, that Japanese officer Yukio Asano’s conviction for war crimes be expunged. He got 15 years at hard labor for waterboarding one U.S. civilian during WWII.

    Lots of other cases, too. One involved a U.S. soldier in Vietnam and led to his court-martial. If he’s still around I’m sure he’d like to be exhonerated.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    What does it say about US culture when a prominent politician (the President even) feels he has to lie in order to claim that he is a truly awful person?

  4. 4
    Bronze Dog

    Ugh. I suppose it’s arguably a good sign that someone’s trying to plead ignorance on behalf of Bush, because it means they know torture is obviously wrong. But it’s still a slimy way to excuse Bush from responsibility for it.

  5. 5
    colnago80

    Re matty1 @ #1

    Spelling Nazi here but his name is spelled Seagal.

  6. 6
    matty1

    @5 Not in my head it isn’t I have special rules in here.

  7. 7
    Baktru

    @4. No it does not mean they realize torture is inherently wrong. They just figured it is unpopular with the public and may hurt at the polls.

  8. 8
    ArtK

    Rizzo finds “the episode perplexing but nonetheless admirable on Bush’s part.” Typically, Presidents distance themselves from controversial C.I.A. programs, but, in “Decision Points,” Bush “put himself up to his neck in the creation and implementation of the most contentious counterterrorist program in the post-9/11 era when, in fact, he wasn’t,” thus taking responsibility.

    But most presidents aren’t hapless wanna-bees who desperately want to be thought of as tough and decisive. He’s like the guy who tells the women he dates that he’s a navy Seal or even a ninja (and yes, people fall for that crap.) It’s verbal penis enlargement.

  9. 9
    Michael Heath

    The best way to find out whether President Bush knew or didn’t know at the time is by criminally prosecuting President Bush and other senior Bush Adminstration officials we know were part of the administration of torture.

    Even if Mr. Bush didn’t know about this particular incident, we already have overwhelming evidence that he knowingly authorized the use of torture on many individuals.

    If President Obama leaves office failing to indict President Bush and the aforementioned others, than he too becomes criminally culpable under a U.N. anti-torture treaty signed by President Reagan. Mr. Obama’s already arguably culpable.

  10. 10
    pacal

    Re: ttch no. 2

    Those approving waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” would really appear more consistent if they publically insisted, for example, that Japanese officer Yukio Asano’s conviction for war crimes be expunged. He got 15 years at hard labor for waterboarding one U.S. civilian during WWII.

    Don’t be naïve. When they do it to one of us it is clearly illegal. When we do it, it is different and will always be different. (snark)

  11. 11
    democommie

    Let the hagiography begin!

  12. 12
    Bronze Dog

    @Baktru: I concede your point. Well, maybe. I’m a bit skeptical it’s that unpopular at the polls.

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    a prominent politician (the President even) feels he has to lie in order to claim that he is a truly awful person?

    It says he seriously underestimated how awful he is.

  14. 14
    Marcus Ranum

    When they do it to one of us it is clearly illegal.

    Remember during the war in Iraq, Bush said it might be a war crime that the Iraqis put american prisoners on TV. If putting them on TV was a war crime, waterboarding an American would be apocalyptic.

    Since waterboarding people is apparently OK I wish that congress had waterboarded Clapper to get a bit of honesty out of him. Except, congress apparently understands the conundrum: a liar like Clapper will lie under torture or under sunlight or even if you just ask him politely … so how do you know you’re getting the truth?

  15. 15
    caseloweraz

    Marcus Ranum (#13): It says he seriously underestimated how awful he is.

    Or else he was trying to close the awfulness gap. Can’t have other nations “out-awful” the good old US of A…

  16. 16
    caseloweraz

    Ed Brayton: Marcy also says that “if Bush really was ignorant about the torture program, then it means the entire thing was illegal.” But of course, it was illegal whether Bush authorized it or not under the UN Convention Against Torture, which is the law of the land in this country.

    Indeed. Philippe Sands of the UK describes the development of these conventions, and their (attempted) abrogation under GW Bush, in Lawless World. He documents the April 2003 protest by Donald Rumsfeld against Iraqi filming of American POWs on the basis that it violated the provisions of GC III.

    See the footnote here.

  17. 17
    Félix Desrochers-Guérin

    Marcus Ranum @13

    It says he seriously underestimated how awful he is.

    misunderestimated, even.

  18. 18
    Ichthyic

    The best way to find out whether President Bush knew or didn’t know at the time is by criminally prosecuting President Bush and other senior Bush Adminstration officials we know were part of the administration of torture

    that’s been tried before…

    result is the now famous phrase, uttered by … well, I’m sure you know who…

    “I don’t recall”

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