"Damn Right": Bush Boasts about Waterboarding
Former President George W. Bush continues to be beyond shame. Those favored with an advance copy of his memoir, Decision Points, say it paints a picture of a totally unapologetic Bush bragging, for example, about authorizing the CIA to waterboard 9/11 “mastermind,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
According to newspaper accounts of the memoir, Bush says he was asked by the CIA for permission to subject KSM to the technique that creates the sensation of imminent drowning. His response was: "Damn right."
For such a frank admission of high-level criminality, we can say, with ample justification, Shame on Bush. But that shame also sticks like Saran wrap to the rest of us – and especially to the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM), which has soft-pedaled the significance of Bush’s confession, and to his make-nice successor, Barack Obama, who has refused to demand any accountability.
However, if we are still a democracy, we are all complicit.
I don’t much care if this sounds judgmental. You see, I was alive during World War II when there was torture galore; then it was considered a grave offense. The Nuremberg Tribunals tried and convicted Germany’s leaders for torture and other war crimes. In the war’s aftermath, there were a very few serious people arguing that the world should simply look forward, not backwards. The vast majority knew there had to be a reckoning, even amid the many serious crises that were facing a war-ravaged world.
The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, insisted that the civilized world had no choice but to demand justice. He looked the Nazi leaders straight in the eye and told the court:
“No charity can disguise the fact that the forces which these defendants represent … are the darkest and most sinister force in society,” Jackson said. “By their fruits we best know them. Their acts have bathed the world in blood and set civilization back a century. They have subjected their European neighbors to every outrage and torture. …
“The real complaining party at your bar is civilization. … Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance.”
The prescient Jackson foresaw a time when not just the vanquished Nazis, but also America’s own leaders might deserve to be put in the dock:
“But the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars … is to make statesmen responsible to law. And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve any useful purpose it must condemn, aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”
Sadly, it is now clear that U.S. officials do not believe they should be held to that universal standard, and that the Nuremberg principles and other international laws need not apply to decisions emanating from the White House.
Rather than facing a stern judgment for his criminal actions, including approving torture and authorizing aggressive war against Iraq, George Bush is about to be lionized in Dallas over his presidential library, in bookstores for his memoir, and in the FCM. Two articles in the New York Times’ “Week in Review” section on Sunday cited Bush’s memoir as a possible turning point for Americans viewing the ex-President more favorably. Neither article made any mention of Bush’s “Damn right” admission of ordering torture.
Reporter Peter Baker wrote, “Perhaps it is time to think about whether America has begun to reconsider its 43rd president.” Columnist Maureen Dowd faulted “W’s decision-making” but said “his story-telling is good.”
In his memoir, Bush exudes confidence that he can achieve the resurrection of his popularity even as he boasts about his role on torture. It was a mark of almost inconceivable hubris that he would callously admit, this time in writing, his authorization of waterboarding.
But he did make that admission, which lobs the ball into our court as American citizens. It is indeed time for the kind of judgment Justice Jackson envisioned, not a celebratory book tour. Nor is it time for breaking ground on a new presidential library to further cover up crimes and falsehoods under a veneer of neo-con “scholarship.” (Progressives in Dallas have taken to calling Bush’s new structure a “lie-bury.”)
Bush’s confidence – or arrogance – can be traced, in part, to the power and tenacity of his acolytes, especially the neocons who remain very influential in Washington.
But blame also must fall on cynical politicians, especially in the House of Representatives, who thought they could maximize Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 by ignoring their solemn oath to honor the Constitution of the United States. Forget the Founders, who took great pains to incorporate in the Constitution an orderly process for impeaching and removing senior officials guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, foreseeing a time when that might be required.
The timid, calculating Democratic leadership wimped out when it had the chance – actually, when it had a Constitutional as well as moral obligation – to investigate, to build public support for action, and to hold Bush accountable.
Now, with the Republicans “shellacking” the Democrats on Nov. 2 and returning to power in the House, here’s a question for the outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her main malleable man, Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers: How’s all that appeasement workin’ for ya?
Shame, as well, on the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) for joining Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in stoking the hysteria that set the stage for the torture and then for caving in to White House pressure to avoid calling torture torture.
Last but hardly least, shame on Bush’s timid successor. Every time I hear that Obama is a former professor of Constitutional law I find myself muttering, “And that would be the constitution of which country?” The President’s soaring rhetoric falls flat fast the moment you stop to ponder how he has betrayed his oath to see to it that the laws are faithfully executed — in this case, by holding self-confessed torturers accountable.
Shame, too, on those of us who decide to remain silent as Bush openly brags about how he personally approved the use of controlled-drowning for interrogation. The Spanish Inquisitors who applied for the first patent on waterboarding had no qualms calling it what it is — tortura de agua.
“Unequivocally torture” is how U.S. Brigadier General David Irvine described waterboarding, after teaching POW interrogation and military law for 18 years.
Signs of the Times
Before some of the revelations of the Bush book hit the media last week, I had been wondering how much light, if any, the memoir would shed on what Bush euphemistically labeled an “alternative set of procedures for interrogation.”
Call me naïve, but I had found it too much of a stretch to visualize a former president of the United States admitting in writing to having ordered waterboarding, the same technique for which Japanese and American soldiers have been tried, convicted and punished.
I am now trying to come to grips with the notion that I have been living in the past, the kind of past that Bush lawyer Alberto Gonzales would call “quaint” and “obsolete” (adjectives he applied to the Geneva Conventions), a past inspired by the Nuremberg principles, where there was at least a modicum of respect for the law—and such a thing a shame.
For over five months now, I have been unable
to get out of my head the photo
of a relaxed, tuxedo-clad George W. Bush in an arm-chair being interviewed after a speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on June 2. He says nonchalantly:
“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.” [But waterboarding doesn’t save lives—just the opposite; see below.]
Since I had not been able to shake that insipid image of the cavalier torturer in the armchair, there is little excuse for my being surprised at what Bush writes in his memoir about his role in ordering torture and the pride he takes in having done so.
I should have been fully prepared for Decision Points, in which the counterfeit cowboy assumes the very same posture of in-your-face-and-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it-when-even-the-wimps-sworn-to-enforce-the-law-are-too-timid-to-do-so.
I have seen much change in the body politic since I arrived in Washington, DC, almost 48 years ago. There is one change, however, that dwarfs all others in significance. It is that the country no longer has, in any real sense, a free media. Read Jefferson and Madison on the importance of a free media to preserving a democracy and you will be reminded of how very BIG this change really is.
Don’t believe me? This coming week, watch how the media gives George W. Bush a stay-out-of-jail pass as he starts to peddle his lie-infested memoir on TV and in bookstores. Watch how the moneyed interests he served lionize him at the groundbreaking for Bush’s “Presidential Center” in Dallas on Nov. 16.
The accomplices of the FCM can be counted on to suppress the truth about Bush and about their own complicity in cheerleading for war, torture and the rest. As is well known, cheerleading is a team effort demanding equal enthusiasm by all.
Maybe this is the real reason why NBC chose this particular time to put Keith Olbermann on leave without pay. Olbermann would never quite “get with the program.”
Unlike most of his pundit colleagues, he was uncomfortable buying into the wisdom of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who famously said:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
How does the Big Lie technique translate to today? Simple. We will be getting a steady diet of this kind of punditry: waterboarding is merely something that a bunch of liberals associate with torture. And, besides, we waterboarded some of our own servicemen to show them what it was like (as if no one has the mental capacity to distinguish between a demonstration and the real thing). And, Bush’s confidence was bolstered by the results of his painstaking efforts to acquire guidance from both the legal and the medical profession. Right?
And most of the lawyers and doctors of this great country will keep silent — even in the face of that kind of provocation.
With the book not yet formally released, it has been easier for the FCM to give Bush’s bragging on waterboarding relatively little attention.
Last Thursday, after Bush’s comment on torture hit the news, the Washington Post, to its credit, ran on page two a report by staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith titled “Bush says in memoir he approved waterboarding.” Smith even noted in his first paragraph that “simulated drownings [are] a practice that many international legal experts say was illicit torture.”
Smith highlights Bush’s admission that he answered, "Damn right," when CIA thugs asked permission to waterboard “9/11 mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for the first of 183 times, and indicates that Bush repeated the mantra that he would decide the same way again “to save lives.”
That was Thursday. On Sunday the Post hastened to inject the customary “balance” with a long panegyric defending George W. Bush from “Five Myths” spread by “liberals” and other recalcitrants unwilling to give him his due.
Did you know, for example, that Bush was “personally invested in compassionate conservatism?” And that his “experience as a born-again Christian led him to empathize with individuals’ personal struggles and to respect the role of religion in civic life?” So writes Professor Julian Zelizer of Princeton, whom the Post apparently paid bucks for “balance.”
The Post must have given Zelizer an advance copy of Decision Points, since his 1,250-word essay dominating page three of Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section was occasioned by the soon-to-be-unveiled memoir and shows he has read it carefully. Zelizer does not mention Bush’s comments on authorizing waterboarding — presumably because that can no longer be dismissed as a “myth.”
As for the bit about Bush being a born-again Christian, this reminded me of another Bush admirer, his father, telling the media shortly after 9/11 that his son George had read straight through the Bible — twice!
Yep; two times! But did he miss, twice, “Thou Shalt Not Kill?” Or Jesus’s instructions to his followers to love your enemy and to treat others as you yourself would want to be treated? Does he need an exegete to unpack those pronouncements?
Favorite Bumper Sticker
To assist with his continuing theological education—and help him keep in mind a key passage, I shall try to give the former president my favorite bumper sticker when I see him at the groundbreaking in Dallas. It reads:
“When Jesus said Love Your Enemies I think he probably meant not to kill them.”
Or torture them.
Meanwhile, the New York Times continues to steer well clear of any such suggestion that waterboarding might be torture. That it had had ample opportunity to read and digest an advance copy of the book was clear on Nov. 4 when it published a 1,700-word article by star reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.
Kakutani was super-careful. Her only allusion to what Bush wrote on waterboarding is buried in one sentence sandwiched into dead center between the revelation that detainees at Guantanamo Bay had access to “an Arabic translation of ‘Harry Potter’” and vapid comments on the economic meltdown. There she inserted Bush’s claim that there would have been “a greater risk that the country would be attacked,” had he not authorized waterboarding.
As for George W. Bush’s faith, Kakutani gives pride of place to Bush’s agonizing choice between religion and alcohol, quoting from the memoir: “Could I continue to grow closer to the Almighty or was alcohol becoming my god?”
(With all due respect, had I known earlier what direct instructions Bush would later claim he got from being close to the “Almighty,” I would have sent him a monthly carton of whatever whiskey they drink down there in Texas.)
In Sunday’s Times, Peter Baker’s article offers a generally flattering portrayal of Bush and his book; Baker also neglects to mention Bush’s “Damn Right” approval of waterboarding. Instead, he notes plaintively that “a good portion” of Americans “still revile him for invading Iraq, waterboarding terror suspects and presiding over the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
Picky, picky, that portion of Americans!
“And yet” are the familiar words Baker, and Professor Zelizer, use to start their various exculpatory paragraphs. No one should be surprised to see the “and yet’s” dominate media coverage this week, when major promotion of the book gets under way. (That’s assuming anyone is so impolite as to ask about waterboarding/torture.)
Baker finishes his article with a familiar sentiment from Bush: “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it.” At least the man is consistent. Interviewing Bush for his panegyric, Bush at War, Bob Woodward asked then-President Bush what he anticipated with respect to his place in history. “History, we’ll all be dead,” was Bush’s reaction.
I’d like to ask Peter Baker why he decided to tuck that particular quote onto the end of his Times article on Sunday. Does he perhaps think it cute to have had a President who couldn’t care less? Or what?
As for Bush himself, I suppose he does not feel there is much danger from the possibility that some writer might prepare an objective, truthful portrayal of his tenure in office any time soon. No doubt he takes reassurance from the virtual certainty that the FCM would drown any such author in decibels. And should someone suggest Bush be prosecuted for war crimes, as he should be, that person would likely be sent off to do penance with Keith Olbermann. (So glad I do not have to depend on the FCM to earn a living.)
…and Making Stuff Up
As for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, according to Reuters, Bush claims KSM was “difficult to break” but that waterboarding did the trick. “He disclosed plans to attack American targets with anthrax…among other breakthroughs,” writes Bush.
There he goes again, making stuff up. There is nothing to support that claim, and lots to refute it. For example, David Rose, a serious investigative journalist writing two years ago for Vanity Fair, conveyed the appraisal of a former senior CIA officer who read all the reports on Mohammed’s interrogation.
His verdict? “Ninety percent of it was total “bullsh*t.” In addition, a former Pentagon analyst told Rose that the interrogation of Mohammed produced no actionable intelligence.
KSM himself has boasted derisively about sending CIA and FBI agents scurrying around the world on wild-goose chases, following up on the “leads” he gave them. I imagine that, by his 183rd waterboarding session, KSM may have identified terrorists he claimed were responsible for global warming.
Other of the Bush’s claims are demonstrably false — contradicted by the FBI, for example. Bush repeats the old saw about KSM yielding information leading to the capture of one of his top aides, Ramzi bin al-Shibh. But that information came from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional, legal methods.
The So-What Yawns
By and large, the “so-what” yawns that have greeted the initial reporting on torture is further testimony to the sorry fact that raw fear can lead to the forfeiture of the ability of Americans to distinguish between right and wrong — even regarding heinous offenses like torture. Sadly, this is made all the easier by the craven silence of the institutional churches and synagogues which, with very few exceptions, cannot find their voice — just as the Catholic and Lutheran churches could not find theirs during the Thirties in Germany.
Behind the stained glass, the end can now be subtly seen to justify the means, if that’s what it takes to head off contentiousness in the church community and keep pews and collection plates full. Anything goes; whatever is necessary to “keep us safe” is the mantra.
If a rare (prophetic) voice does enter the dialogue with a reminder that many of the prophets, including Jesus of Nazareth, were tortured to death, that voice is quickly silenced. Can’t you see? This is different; the terrorists hate us and are out to kill the lot of us.
What rankles most is the success Bush and Cheney have had, with the corporate media support on which they depend, in stoking Americans’ fear to the point where waterboarding and other forms of torture have become widely accepted as necessary to “keep us safe.”
Hidden is the supreme irony that torture has been doing just the opposite. In fact, it has proven the most powerful fillip to violence against us. Now who should find that surprising? Bush’s policy on interrogation has been directly linked by U.S. interrogators to the killing of American troops — in Iraq, for example.
The senior U.S. Air Force interrogation specialist who uses the name Matthew Alexander and who conducted more than 300 interrogations in Iraq and supervised over 1,000 more lamented those additional killings, “It's a hard pill to swallow, but true.” Alexander, a Bronze Star awardee, says that as many as 90 percent of the foreign fighters captured in Iraq said they joined the fight against the U.S. because of the torture conducted at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Former General Counsel to the Navy Alberto Mora made the same point in testimony before Congress:
“There are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq — as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat — are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”
It is a given, then, that the Bush torture policy made Americans less — not more — safe.
Getting Desired Answers
Are waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques “highly effective,” as Bush reportedly claims in his memoir? The short answer is No.
On Sept. 6, 2006, the very day Bush first bragged publicly about his “alternative set of procedures for interrogation” and appealed for legislation allowing the CIA to continue using them, the then head of Army intelligence, Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, took a very different tack.
Conducting a Pentagon briefing shortly before the President gave his own speech on the other side of the Potomac, Kimmons underscored the fact that the revised Army manual for interrogation is in sync with the Geneva treaties.
Then, conceding past “transgressions and mistakes,” Kimmons updated something I learned 48 years ago as a second lieutenant in Army infantry/intelligence:
“No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”
Grabbing the headlines the following day was Bush’s admission that the CIA has taken “high-value” captives to prisons abroad for interrogation using “tough” techniques prohibited by the revised Army field manual — and by Geneva, for that matter. Gen. Kimmons displayed uncommon courage in facing into that wind. Too bad our political leaders are afraid to follow his example.
Question: If Bush’s “alternative set of procedures for interrogation” adds to the queuing in front of terrorist centers, so to speak, and if they don’t yield good intelligence, why use them? Former FBI Special Agent/Attorney Coleen Rowley and I have co-authored articles for Consortiumnews.com, which address this very understandable question. Let me refer you especially to “‘Justifying’ Torture: Two Big Lies.”
Briefly, if your aim is to extract untruthful information (like “intelligence” on those non-existent but close ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, remember?), nothing works better than torture. If you want to intimidate real or imagined troublemakers, torture is a natural for proving that what Lord Acton said about absolute power is horribly real.
And, if you have a streak of sadism, harsh interrogation techniques can give grand release.
You are not likely to have seen much in the FCM about Bush’s bent toward sadism. Justin Frank, MD, psychiatrist and professor at George Washington University, who authored Bush on the Couch, has helped us veteran intelligence officers explore the implications. Dr Frank explains:
“Bush’s certitude that he is right gives him carte blanche for destructive behavior. He has always had a sadistic streak: from blowing up frogs, to shooting his siblings with a b-b-gun, to branding fraternity pledges with white-hot coat hangers.
“His comfort with cruelty is one reason he can be so jocular with reporters when talking about American casualties in Iraq. Instead of seeing a president in anguish, we watch him publicly joking about the absence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, in the vain search for which so many young Americans died.”
Patchwork of False Beliefs
The following excerpt is from a Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity memorandum of July 27, 2007, which included some additional observations with regard to how Bush looks at truth, as suggested by Dr. Frank: “Dangers of a Cornered Bush”:
“His pathology is a patchwork of false beliefs and incomplete information woven into what he asserts is the whole truth... he lies — not just to us, but to himself as well...What makes lying so easy for Bush is his contempt — for language, for law, and for anybody who dares question him.... So his words mean nothing. That is very important for people to understand.”
A useful reminder as Bush comes back into public view in the coming weeks.
Torture is not wrong just because there are laws against it. There are laws against it because it is wrong. Intrinsically wrong; always wrong — like genocide, rape, slavery. And as one scholar put it, “to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding that the sun rises in the east.”
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have each said that waterboarding is torture. But, sadly, neither has the guts to look in the rear-view mirror and do what the Constitution and common decency require.
In the wake of World War II, civilized nations came to a general consensus on all this, and the ensuing laws and international conventions reflected that consensus. George Bush is simply the most visible leader to employ lawyers and doctors — and even a stray theologian here and there — to help him carve out exceptions to that consensus.
True, on occasion a moral theologian will summon the courage to speak out. Professor William Schweiker of the Chicago Divinity School, for example, has heaped scorn on the familiar scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture is thought to be able to save millions of lives. He notes that such is “the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses.”
With specific reference to waterboarding, Schweiker admonishes Christians, in particular:
“Not to fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation’s highest political and moral ideals, even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols (Baptism) of the Christian faith.”
From the Professional Military
Interrogator Matthew Alexander reports, “I have been contacted by World War II veterans who were outraged that the Bush administration so easily dismissed the American principles that millions of veterans gave their lives to defend. They pointed out what I have said all along: we cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him.”
World War II General George C. Marshall warned, "Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. ... A good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control both in his men and in himself."
And in 1775, as the birth of America hung in the balance, General George Washington said, "Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any prisoner...by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country."
With George W. Bush’s “Damn right” permission to waterboard – and the FCM’s flaccid response – America has certainly come a long way. Again, I believe we are all complicit—and that would be doubly so, if we emulate the passive stance of the “good Germans” of the Thirties.
Bush has brought the issue of torture to a head. Shame on us all, if we allow the recent history of waterboarding and other torture techniques to go unchallenged and to end up defining us.