Covering Torture

Kate Klonick at TPMMuckraker comments on today’s Washington Post report on the latest torture memos to surface:

Two memos sent by the White House authorizing the use of torture in CIA interrogations firmly tie the Bush administration to the controversial techniques used on detainees and investigated by the Justice Department, the Washington Post reports.

The White House’s written approval of the CIA interrogation methods were provided at the request of then CIA Director George Tenet, who was seeking “top cover,” should the administration try to distance itself from the decisions later.

One memo, provided in 2003 approved the methods later used in prisons like Abu Ghraib. When the scandal over that prison erupted, Tenet requested a second letter from the White House which was provided in July 2004.

The memos are the latest in recent admissions from the Bush administration on their role in authorizing and shaping CIA interrogation techniques — charges they denied for years. In late September, Condoleezza Rice admitted White House officials discussed using torture against detainees.

The WaPo article confirmed the existence of these two memos, but the paper does not actually have them, because the memos themselves are still classified.

“But let’s be clear about something,” writes Michael Stickings:

We’re not talking about questionable legal approval from Yoo-like Justice Department lawyers here, we’re talking about actual “policy approval” from administration officials, likely from Rice and the National Security Council, if not from higher up, on behalf of the entire Bush Administration itself. (Ultimately, it is Bush himself who must be held accountable, whether he was in on it or not at the time.)

This confirms what we’ve known for a long time now:

We’ve long known that the CIA waterboarded at least three Al Qaeda detainees.

We’ve also long known that the Justice Dept., at the behest of a Central Intelligence Agency deeply fearful about its legal vulnerabilities, endorsed the torture techniques that CIA leadership desired. And we’ve recently learned that George W. Bush’s principal aides, including Condoleezza Rice, were aware of all the Spanish Inquisition-derived instruments of cruelty that the government was rehabilitating — as was Bush himself.

Actually, anyone who’s read Jane Mayer’s articles in The New Yorker, or her recent book, The Dark Side, knows that the involvement of Bush’s senior White House staff in the CIA torture program went a good deal beyond awareness: A small group of top Bush officials — chiefly Dick Cheney, David Addington, and Alberto Gonzales (in Bush’s first term, when John Ashcroft was the Attorney General) — in the White House designed the program and tasked the administration lawyers — John Yoo and William Haynes chief among them — to come up with the legal justification for every single one of those Spanish Inquisition techniques. Those attorneys who had qualms about the legality of the torture program and about the doctrine of unlimited presidential power that was used to justify it — James Comey, Jack Goldsmith, and Dan Levin being a few examples — did not last long in the Bush administration.

Marty Lederman is one of the expert legal sources Mayer used in writing her book; his take on today’s news is here:

The Washington Post this morning reports that the White House twice issued memoranda to the CIA authorizing the use of its so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques. I’m not quite sure why this is breaking news. President Bush, after all, has already boasted that he specifically approved of each of the techniques, and we’ve now seen the reports of principals’ meetings at which the techniques were discussed and authorized in exquisite detail.

What the Post story confirms, I suppose, is that the White House sign-off was written, rather than oral. Why is that important? I’m not sure it is. So what’s the importance of the story? Perhaps the following passage offers a clue. The President had already signed off on the CIA techniques once. But then . . .

By the spring of 2004, the concerns among agency officials had multiplied, in part because of shifting views among administration lawyers about what acts might constitute torture, leading Tenet to ask a second time for written confirmation from the White House. This time the reaction was far more reserved, recalled two former intelligence officials. “The Justice Department in particular was resistant,” said one former intelligence official who participated in the discussions. “They said it doesn’t need to be in writing.”

What’s that about?

Marcy Wheeler has updated the torture timeline.

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