Even for someone who has lived in Hollywood for twenty years – a very strange place – you know there are certain things that just won’t fly.
Okay, you’re a screenwriter and you and your agent finally land that pitch meeting with the middle-level studio executive, the guy who has the ear of the big cheese who green-lights productions. The second-level guy sits behind his big desk, idly fiddling with his Blackberry, and you have your few minutes to offer what they call concepts. Okay – think Dirty Dancing meets Schindler’s List. He says pass. Okay, it’s The Sound of Music, but with an all-gay cast. He says pass. Okay, Apocalypse Now, the Musical. He says pass. Okay, it’s High Noon, but set in Baghdad in 2012 – with Bill Murray playing the Gary Cooper part. He says tell me more.
But you don’t trot out the other concept you had in your back pocket – an increasing paranoid vice president, who had taken over the government of a hopelessly dumb frat-boy president, and who has shot a hunting partner in the face, devises a system of universal surveillance of all citizens, devises a system where anyone can be locked up forever without charges, or just disappeared, and devises a system of torture, then, once his term is over, with the help of an elderly Australian-born media baron – Citizen Kane without the charm – launches a campaign to make the American people believe all this was wonderful and he was the only one keeping them safe, as the rest of the world hates us. And his arch-enemy is the new president – young, charismatic, compassionate and hyper-intelligent. And get this – the new guy is black, with a gorgeous wife and two cute absurdly winning kids. It’s boffo!
No. You know some things are just too preposterous, even for Hollywood. Cute animated 3-D robots in love in a barren, post nuclear war world maybe – but not that. Some things just aren’t believable.
Of course this explains the crap Hollywood churns out – real life far more surreal, and far more dramatic. It’s hard to keep up.
And if you somehow got the green light to make your hypothetical movie about the slightly mad, dark and secretive former vice president, what would you do with the revelations of Thursday, May 14 – as some turning points just seem too pat? They’re the kind of things that are simply tossed out in script meetings – unbelievable, unlikely, just couldn’t happen. No audience would buy it.
But they happen. And you want someone like Chris Cooper to play Robert Windrem, the Senior Research Fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, who for three decades worked as a producer for NBC News – on matters of international security, strategic policy, intelligence and terrorism. Windrem, with all his awards, knows how to break a story:
Two U.S. intelligence officers confirm that Vice President Cheney’s office suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner, a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein, who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.
The former chief of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, in charge of interrogations, tells The Daily Beast that he considered the request reprehensible.
Much of the information in the report of the 9/11 Commission was provided through more than 30 sessions of torture of detainees.
Those are the bullet points in this item in the Daily Beast. It seems he interviewed Charles Duelfer regarding that man’s new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq – and he puts two and two together.
The basics are this:
At the end of April 2003, not long after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. forces captured an Iraqi who Bush White House officials suspected might provide information of a relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi was the head of the M-14 section of Mukhabarat, one of Saddam’s secret police organizations. His responsibilities included chemical weapons and contacts with terrorist groups.
“To those who wanted or suspected a relationship, he would have been a guy who would know, so [White House officials] had particular interest,” Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraqi Survey Group and the man in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials, told me. So much so that the officials, according to Duelfer, inquired how the interrogation was proceeding.
And the obvious happened:
Duelfer says he heard from “some in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA),” who thought Khudayr’s interrogation had been “too gentle” and suggested another route, one that they believed has proven effective elsewhere. “They asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used,” Duelfer writes. “The executive authorities addressing those measures made clear that such techniques could legally be applied only to terrorism cases, and our debriefings were not as yet terrorism-related. The debriefings were just debriefings, even for this creature.”
Duelfer will not disclose who in Washington had proposed the use of waterboarding, saying only: “The language I can use is what has been cleared.” In fact, two senior U.S. intelligence officials at the time tell The Daily Beast that the suggestion to waterboard came from the Office of Vice President Cheney. Cheney, of course, has vehemently defended waterboarding and other harsh techniques, insisting they elicited valuable intelligence and saved lives. He has also asked that several memoranda be declassified to prove his case.
Duelfer was appalled by the request – he considered it “reprehensible and understood the rationale as political – and ultimately counterproductive to the overall mission of the Iraq Survey Group, which was assigned the mission of finding Saddam Hussein’s WMD after the invasion.”
But he knows what was going on:
“Everyone knew there would be more smiles in Washington if WMD stocks were found,” Duelfer said in the interview. “My only obligation was to find the truth. It would be interesting if there was WMD in May 2003, but what was more interesting to me was looking at the entire regime through the slice of WMD.”
But, Duelfer says, Khudayr in fact repeatedly denied knowing the location of WMD or links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda and was not subjected to any enhanced interrogation. Duelfer says the idea that he would have known of such links was “ludicrous.”
And Robert Windrem knows what was going on:
This proposed use of enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture, in Iraq was not the only time these methods were actually used to derive information for a purpose other than the stated one – to derive intelligence about imminent threats to the United States following the 9/11 attacks.
An extensive analysis I conducted as a reporter for NBC News of the 9/11 Commission’s Final Report and its monograph on terrorist travel showed that much of what was reported about the planning and execution of the terror attacks on New York and Washington was based on the CIA’s interrogations of high-ranking al Qaeda operatives who had been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
More than one-quarter of all footnotes in the 9/11 Report refer to CIA interrogations of al Qaeda operatives subjected to the now-controversial interrogation techniques. In fact, information derived from the interrogations was central to the 9/11 Report’s most critical chapters, those on the planning and execution of the attacks.
So the 9/11 Commission’s Final Report was largely based on information from people who just wanted the pain to stop. The reason evidence obtained by torture had been excluded, for centuries now, everywhere, is that you cannot trust it – but we trusted it. We just didn’t ask where it came from:
“Remember,” the intelligence official said, “the Commission had access to the intelligence reports that came out of the interrogation. This didn’t satisfy them. They demanded direct personal access to the detainees and the administration told them to go pound sand.”
“As a compromise, they were allowed to let us know what questions they would have liked to ask the detainees. At appropriate times in the interrogation cycle, agency questioners would go back and re-interview the detainees. Many of [those] questions were variants or follow-ups to stuff previously asked.”
So we got those guys to say what we wanted to hear and everyone pretended it was true. We were the fools.
As for the first bullet point – that there is clear evidence that torture, if you want to call it that, was ordered by Cheney, to get someone to say Saddam and Osama were working together and not to make us safer – is devastating.
At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall explains:
Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) was just interviewed on MSNBC and he talked about the new reports that Vice President Cheney tried to get the Iraq WMD investigators – after the invasion – to waterboard an Iraqi intelligence official to try to pump him for information about Saddam’s alleged alliance with al Qaida. Whitehouse noted that this would dramatically change the legal terms of the question since even the notorious OLC memos allow practices like waterboarding to avoid imminent threats to the US.
But waterboarding this Iraqi guy about Saddam’s relationship with al Qaida – after the invasion – would have been to get political information, proof of the purported but then largely discredited rationale for the war. (Also worth noting is that an Iraqi intelligence official captured during the invasion would, I think, very clearly be an old fashioned POW.)
More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Senator Whitehouse’s appearances, on CNN and MSNBC, are here. You can’t make this stuff up.
And then there’s Lawrence Wilkerson, the old-guard Republican who was Colin Powell’s right hand man through all those years. He’s not happy. After having been interviewed on MSNBC on the Cheney matter, and having had to sit through the clips of Cheney saying torture works and it was the right thing to do, and anyway our lawyers told us it wasn’t really torture, Wilkerson says this:
First, more Americans were killed by terrorists on Cheney’s watch than on any other leader’s watch in US history. So his constant claim that no Americans were killed in the “seven and a half years” after 9/11 of his vice presidency takes on a new texture when one considers that fact. And it is a fact.
There was absolutely no policy priority attributed to al-Qaida by the Cheney-Bush administration in the months before 9/11. Counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke’s position was downgraded, al-Qaida was put in the background so as to emphasize Iraq, and the policy priorities were lowering taxes, abrogating the ABM Treaty and building ballistic missile defenses.
And the kept-us-safe crap bugs him too:
…the fact no attack has occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11 – much touted by Cheney – is due almost entirely to the nation’s having deployed over 200,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and not to “the Cheney method of interrogation.”
Those troops have kept al-Qaida at bay, killed many of them, and certainly “fixed” them, as we say in military jargon. Plus, sadly enough, those 200,000 troops present a far more lucrative and close proximity target for al-Qaida than the United States homeland. Testimony to that fact is clear: almost 5,000 American troops have died, more Americans than died on 9/11. Of course, they are the type of Americans for whom Cheney hasn’t much use as he declared rather dramatically when he achieved no less than five draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
And he’s not impressed that Cheney claims that if Obama stops “the Cheney method of interrogation and torture” we all die:
My investigations have revealed to me – vividly and clearly – that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering “the Cheney methods of interrogation”, simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.
What I am saying is that no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009. So, if we are to believe the protestations of Dick Cheney, that Obama’s having shut down the “Cheney interrogation methods” will endanger the nation, what are we to say to Dick Cheney for having endangered the nation for the last four years of his vice presidency?
Yes, he uses that old debating trick – simple logic. And then he drops this bomb:
I have learned … that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 – well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion – its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaida.
So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qaida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.
There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just “committed suicide” in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi….)
Now that’s real Hollywood – you know, conveniently bumping off the witness, perhaps, like in some old film noir thing from the late forties. The rest is a rant on “the damage that the Sith Lord Cheney is doing to my political party.” Lawrence Wilkerson is not a happy man.
As for that convenient suicide, see Andy Worthington:
In Egypt, he came up with the false allegation about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used by President Bush in a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, just days before Congress voted on a resolution authorizing the President to go to war against Iraq, in which, referring to the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bush said, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”
Four months later, on February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the same claim in his notorious speech to the UN Security Council, in an attempt to drum up support for the invasion. “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to Al Qaeda,” Powell said, adding, “Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.” As a Newsweek report in 2007 explained, Powell did not identify al-Libi by name, but CIA officials – and a Senate Intelligence Committee report – later confirmed that he was referring to al-Libi.
Al-Libi recanted his story in February 2004, when he was returned to the CIA’s custody, and explained, as Newsweek described it, that he told his debriefers that “he initially told his interrogators that he ‘knew nothing’ about ties between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden and he ‘had difficulty even coming up with a story’ about a relationship between the two.” The Newsweek report explained that “his answers displeased his interrogators – who then apparently subjected him to the mock burial. As al-Libi recounted, he was stuffed into a box less than 20 inches high. When the box was opened 17 hours later, al-Libi said he was given one final opportunity to ‘tell the truth.’ He was knocked to the floor and ‘punched for 15 minutes.’ It was only then that, al-Libi said, he made up the story about Iraqi weapons training.”
But Cheney got his war. And this is so preposterous that, were this Hollywood, they would laugh you out of the script meeting. It just seems to be true – what happened. Of course the New York Times covered the whole thing in late 2005 – no one cared then, and four years later, before anyone could ask the guy just what happened, as things are now getting hot, he checked out. You can’t make this stuff up.
Andrew Sullivan, as always, adds useful perspective:
One key thing to understand about torture is that it almost never occurs when the torturers know nothing and need to find out something. That’s why seeing it as an interrogation tool, properly understood, is actually oxymoronic. What torture is about is forcing a victim to tell you something you already think you know but want confirmed – either to prevent an attack or use as propaganda or deploy against another suspect. And, as one recalls, there are many things that Dick Cheney simply knows – even though the CIA, the State Department, and much of the professional machinery of government might disagree. In fact, disagreement by State and CIA actually only tends to confirm Cheney’s view, in his mind, that he is always, always right.
So what were the two things of which Cheney was completely sure after 9/11, regardless of the objective evidence? He was sure that there was an operational connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, and sure that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
And the rest is history, even if, Sullivan says, you can see the motivation:
In Cheney’s defense, these were judgments based on completely legitimate fears – and any president or vice-president would be duty bound to figure them out. After 9/11, the possibility of al Qaeda with WMDs was terrifying, and Cheney had already been responsible for the worst attack on American soil in US history. By his reading of his oath of office, he had already broken it. So he finds two potential Qaeda suspects and they are interrogated … but although they tell him a lot about al Qaeda, they don’t tell him what he wants to know and believes is true. And what he believes is true could, in his mind, threaten the US and thousands of American lives. He wasn’t alone in this fear. I was right there along with him, as most of us were. But, from all we now know, he went one step further in this quest than any American elected official had ever done in history before.
And that would be this:
From much of what we can glean, it was only after the suspects had given up lots of info, but not the info Cheney wanted, that the torture started, as it usually does in history. It starts with someone empowered with torture to get from a victim the words that will confirm what the torturer already believes. This evidence can then be publicly cited as proof that Cheney is right … and justify further torture and even, in this case, partly justify an entire war that killed tens of thousands and cost trillions of dollars and still has almost the entire US military locked down with no way out in the middle of the Middle East. Moreover, the result of torture – it worked! – you can almost hear Cheney exult – proves that other potential torture victims could also be forced to tell us the same thing. And so the temptation to torture deepens with every session – as you believe you are nearing the truth, even as, in reality, you are entering a dark hole from which there is no escaping.
Sullivan goes on to argue that what we did to al-Libi was what we tried to do to the Zubaydah fellow, and that was equally well beyond foolish:
He’d been interrogated successfully, given up huge amounts of information when being treated humanely, even kindly, in hospital and after – but not enough for Cheney. Cheney wanted Zubaydah to tell him what Cheney already knew: the Saddam-Qaeda connection. That would sure foil those pantywaist liberals in the State Department, the Congress and the press who kept asking for proof – as if proof were needed in such an emergency. And so Zubaydah was strapped to a waterboard to force a fake casus belli out of him.
And they did that eighty-three times in one month and got nothing. And now Cheney wants points for how well this all worked. Okay – make the damned movie. Dennis Hopper or Anthony Hopkins can play the role of Cheney – each does mad villains well.
But don’t bring in Jon Perr as a script consultant. He would only make the movie even more outrageous, as he sees Cheney, the old Cold Warrior, playing a game of Mutually Assured Destruction:
Cheney’s MAD strategy goes something like this. If the DOJ or Congress proceeds with torture probes or prosecutions, Republican retaliation will be massive and total. Nominees will be blocked, legislation filibustered and the gridlock in Washington permanent. The blame for the carnage, the theory goes, will go to the side (in this case, Democrats) which launched the first strike. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
With the prospect of an atomic political conflict assured of leaving both parties devastated, stalemate is the only alternative. And in Dick Cheney’s case, stalemate equals victory. By ratcheting up the public pressure, Cheney is forcing Obama’s hand: act on torture, or back down. And by backing down, Obama would in essence codify the Bush administration’s criminality. In the unsteady equilibrium which would endure, the Bush torture team would appear to be right, seemingly vindicated. Like the Soviet threat, the risk from torture prosecution would be successfully contained. In his eyes, Cheney’s omnipresence isn’t a nightmare for Republicans, but their path back.
Oh hell – throw that in too. If you’re going to make an outrageous movie – part farce, part tragedy, about the end of America – go whole hog. No one is going to believe any of it anyway – even if it is true. And that may be the real problem.