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Responsibility for Torture and Abu Ghraib: The Post Shows It Goes at Least as Far as the Vice President

Patrick McElwee

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, there has been widespread speculation that the abuses captured in the shocking photos were more than the work of a few "bad apples." Historian Alfred McCoy, who has written a history of CIA interrogation practices, noted that the practices at Abu Ghraib, including sensory deprivation and stress positions, came right out of the CIA handbook.

Those closely involved shared this suspicion. Last week, Seymour Hersh revealed that the Army's lead Abu Ghraib investigator, retired Major General Anthony Taguba, believes that responsibility went up the chain of command. But he was not allowed to investigate higher-ups.

Congress has not yet conducted a serious investigation.

But thanks to some intrepid reporters, the time of speculation may be ending. The Washington Post (in two stories, available here and here) has presented strong evidence that culpability for authorizing torture goes straight to the vice-president's office, and possibly to the president.

After an extensive investigation, including interviews with over 200 people, the Washington Post has placed Vice President Dick Cheney at the helm of intense bureaucratic in-fighting with the aim of authorizing cruelty and torture in interrogations. Both cruelty and torture are against international law and were against domestic law, specifically the War Crimes Act, at the time they were authorized by the White House.

The vice president and his allies, basing their actions on legal theories of an executive branch with nearly unlimited powers to make war, conspired to secretly authorize interrogation practices like those exposed at Abu Ghraib. These revelations demand follow-up by the Congress and serious consideration of articles of impeachment, as well as criminal prosecution of those involved. Among the Post's many revelations, we learn that the memo sent to President Bush in January 2002 calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint" was actually written by Cheney's chief legal counsel, although it was signed by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who was very much a Cheney ally. It was part of the vice president's overall strategy to ensure that alleged terrorists, already stripped of access to US civilian and military courts thanks to Cheney's legal team, would not be protected by the Geneva Conventions either.


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When, in February 2002, the president issued the directive that was to form the alternate basis of treatment of detainees, the language came directly from the vice president's office. It was carefully crafted to allow cruelty in interrogations, a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act. It called for humane treatment in general, but authorized the military and intelligence services to make unrestricted exemptions.

That determination led directly to the so-called "torture memo" of August 2002, written by Cheney ally John Yoo, which claimed that U.S. law permits all but "the worst forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." When the memo's existence was revealed to the public two years later, the administration disavowed its contents, claiming that it was written only to deal with a hypothetical situation.

In fact, the Post shows, the memo was a direct response to a CIA inquiry about the specific case of Abu Zubaida, an alleged high-level Al Qaeda operative. That it was not repudiated for two years suggests that it governed interrogations for that long period.

The Post further reveals that a still-secret memo released on the very same day as the torture memo actually approved a long list of interrogation techniques for the CIA, including the heinous practice waterboarding. Those techniques were later adopted by the military, many surfacing in the Abu Ghraib scandal, which was certainly only the tip of a much larger iceberg. The Post thus shows that the interrogation practices of Abu Ghraib for which some low-ranking soldiers have been given substantial prison sentences were authorized at the highest levels of government with Cheney playing a central role. The President himself may well be implicated.

The Post also uncovered Cheney's role in authorizing warrantless wiretapping, in maintaining secret detention sites for kidnapped suspects around the world, and in denying American citizen José Padilla access to an attorney.

The evidence of the vice president's role in authorizing cruel treatment and torture in interrogations demands that Congress act. We need a full Congressional investigation and a serious consideration of impeachment of the vice president for war crimes. Patrick McElwee is a policy analyst with Just Foreign Policy ( He can be reached at

© 2007 Foreign Policy In Focus

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