Tuesday evening offered an unusual opportunity
to question the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2001-2005),
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, at an alumni club dinner. He was
eager to talk about his just-published memoir, Eyes on the Horizon
(and I was able to scan through a copy during the cocktail hour).
Myers's presentation, like his book,
was thin gruel. After his brief talk, he seemed intent on filibustering
during a meandering Q & A session. He finally called on me since
no other hands were up. Some were yawning, but it was too early to simply
I introduced myself as a former Army
intelligence officer and CIA analyst with combined service of almost
30 years. I thanked him for his stated opposition to interrogation
techniques that go beyond "our interrogation manual"; and his conviction
that "the Geneva Conventions were a fundamental part of our military
culture"-both viewpoints emphasized in his book.
I then noted that the recently published
Senate Armed Services Committee report, "Inquiry Into the Treatment
of Detainees in U.S. Custody," sowed some doubt regarding the strength
of his convictions.
Why, I asked, did Gen. Myers choose to
go along in Dec. 2002 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized
harsh interrogation techniques and, earlier, in Feb. 2002, when President
George W. Bush himself issued an executive order arbitrarily denying
Geneva protections to al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees?
I referred Gen. Myers to the Senate committee's
finding that he had nipped in the bud an in-depth legal review of interrogation
techniques, when all interested parties were eager for an authoritative
ruling on their lawfulness. (The following account borrows heavily from
the Senate committee report.)
Background: The summer of 2002 brought
to interrogators at Guantanamo fresh guidance, plus new techniques adopted
from the Korean War practices of Chinese Communist interrogators who
had extracted false confessions from captured American troops.
On Aug. 1, 2002 a memo signed by the
head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee,
stated that for an act to qualify as "torture":
... must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious
physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function,
or even death.
--"Purely mental pain or suffering
... must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration,
e.g., lasting for months or even years."
During the week of Sept. 16, 2002, a
group of interrogators from Guantanamo flew to Fort Bragg, North Carolina,
for training in the use of these SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance,
& Escape) techniques, which were originally designed to help downed
pilots withstand the regimen of torture employed by China. Now, SERE
techniques were being "reverse engineered" and placed in the toolkit
of U.S. military and CIA interrogators.
As soon as the Guantanamo interrogators
returned from Fort Bragg, senior administration lawyers, including William
"Jim" Haynes II (Department of Defense), John Rizzo (CIA), and David
Addington (counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney), visited Guantanamo
And, just to make quite sure there was
no doubt about the new license given to interrogators, Jonathan Fredman,
chief counsel to CIA's Counterterrorist Center, also arrived and gathered
the Guantanamo staff together on Oct. 2, 2002, to resolve any lingering
questions regarding unfamiliar aggressive interrogation techniques,
Fredman stressed, "The language of
the statutes is written vaguely." He repeated Bybee's Aug.
1 guidance and summed up the legalities in this way: "It is basically
subject to perception. If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong."
Needed: More Authoritative Guidance
Small wonder that on Oct. 11, 2002, Gen.
Michael Dunlavey, the commander at Guantanamo, saw fit to double check
with his superior, SOUTHCOM commander Gen. James Hill and request formal
authorization to use aggressive interrogation techniques, including
On Oct. 25, 2002, Hill forwarded the
request to Gen. Myers and Secretary Rumsfeld, commenting that, while
lawyers were saying the techniques could be used, "I want a legal
review of it, and I want you to tell me that, policy-wise, it's the
right way to do business." Hill later told the Army Inspector
General that he (Hill) thought the request "was important enough that
there ought to be a high-level look at it ... ought to be a major policy
discussion of this and everybody ought to be involved."
Gen. Myers, in turn, solicited the views
of the military services on the Dunlavey/Hill request.
The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force
all expressed serious concerns about the legality of the techniques
and called for a comprehensive legal review. The Marine Corps, for example,
wrote, "Several of the techniques arguably violate federal law, and
would expose our service members to possible prosecution."
Ends Justify Means?
The Defense Department's Criminal Investigative
Task Force (CITF) at Guantanamo joined the services in expressing grave
misgivings. Reflecting the tenor of the four services' concerns, CITF's
chief legal advisor wrote that the "legality of applying certain techniques"
for which authorization was requested was "questionable."
He added that he could not "advocate any action, interrogation or
otherwise, that is predicated upon the principle that all is well if
the ends justify the means and others are not aware of how we conduct
Myers's Legal Counsel, Captain (now
Rear Admiral) Jane Dalton, had her own concerns (and has testified that
she made Gen. Myers aware of them), together with those expressed in
writing by the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Dalton directed
her staff to initiate a thorough legal and policy review of the proposed
The review got off to a quick start.
As a first step, Dalton ordered a secure video teleconference including
Guantanamo, SOUTHCOM, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Army's
intelligence school at Fort Huachuca. Dalton said she wanted to
find out more information about the techniques in question and to begin
discussing the legal issues to see if her office could do its own independent
See No Evil
Under oath before the Senate Armed Services
Committee, Captain Dalton testified that, after she and her staff had
begun their analysis, Gen. Myers directed her in November 2002 to stop
She explained that Myers returned from
a meeting and "advised me that [Pentagon General Counsel] Mr. Haynes
wanted me ... to cancel the video teleconference and to stop the review"
because of concerns that "people were going to see" the Guantanamo
request and the military services' analysis of it. Haynes "wanted
to keep it much more close-hold," Dalton said.
Dalton ordered her staff to stop the
legal analysis. She testified that this was the only time that she had
ever been asked to stop analyzing a request that came to her for review.
I asked Gen. Myers why he stopped the
in-depth legal review. He bobbed and weaved, contending first that some
of the Senate report was wrong.
"But you did stop the review, that
is a matter of record. Why?" I asked again.
"I stopped the broad review," Myers
replied, "but I asked Dalton to do her personal review and keep me
(Myers had a memory lapse when Senate
committee members asked him about stopping the review.)
I asked again why he stopped the review,
but was shouted down by an audience not used to having plain folks ask
direct questions of very senior officials, past or present.
I Confess: Rumsfeld Made Me Do
Haynes told the Senate committee that
"there was a sense by DoD leadership that this decision was taking
On Nov. 27, 2002, shortly after Haynes
told Myers to order Dalton to stop her review - and despite the serious
legal concerns of the military services - Haynes sent Rumsfeld a one-page
memo recommending that he approve all but three of the 18 techniques
in the request from Guantanamo. Techniques like stress positions,
nudity, exploitation of phobias (like fear of dogs), deprivation of
light and auditory stimuli were all recommended for approval.
On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld signed Haynes's
recommendation, adding a handwritten note referring to the use of stress
positions: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited
to 4 hours?"
As the shouting by my distinguished colleagues
died down, I too remained standing, reminding myself that I had wanted
to say a word about the Geneva Conventions, "for which you, Gen. Myers,
express such strong support in your book."
I waved a copy of the smoking-gun, two-page
executive memorandum signed by George W. Bush on Feb. 7, 2002. That's
the one in which the President arbitrarily declared that Common Article
3 of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees,
and then threw in obfuscatory language from lawyers Addington and Alberto
Gonzales that such detainees would nonetheless be treated "humanely
and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity,
in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva."
I then made reference to "Conclusion
1" of the Senate committee report:
"On Feb. 7, 2002, President George
W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva
Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane
treatment, did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees.
"Following the President's determination,
techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions
... were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody."
"Gen. Myers," I asked, "you were
one of eight addressees for the President's directive of Feb. 7, 2002.
What did you do when you learned of the President's decision to ignore
"Please just read my book," Myers
said. I told him I already had, and proceeded to read aloud a couple
of sentences from my copy:
"You write that you told Douglas Feith,
'I feel very strongly about this. And if Rumsfeld doesn't defend
the Geneva Conventions, I'll contradict him in front of the President.'
"You go on to explain very clearly,
'I was legally obligated to provide the President my best military
advice - not the best advice as approved by the Secretary of Defense.'
"So, again, what did you do after you
read the President's executive order of Feb. 7, 2002?"
Myers said he had fought the good fight
before the President's decision. The sense was that, if the President
wanted to dismiss Geneva, what was a mere Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
In this connection, Myers included this
curious passage in his book:
"By relying so heavily on just the
lawyers, the President did not get the broader advice on these matters
that he needed to fully consider the consequences of his actions. I
thought it was critical that the nation's leadership convey the right
message to those engaged in the War on Terror.
"Showing respect for the Geneva
Conventions was important to all of us in uniform. This episode epitomized
the Secretary's and the Chairman's different statutory responsibilities
to the President and the nation. The fact that the President appeared
to change his previous decision showed that the system,
however, imperfect, had worked."
Enter Douglas Feith
Interestingly, Myers writes, "Douglas
Feith supported my views strongly ... noting that the United States
had no choice but to apply the Geneva Conventions, because, like all
treaties in force for the country, they bore the same weight as a federal
Myers goes on to corroborate what British
lawyer/author Philippe Sands writes in The Torture Team about
the apparent twinning of Feith and Myers on this issue. Sands says Feith
portrayed himself and Myers as of one mind on Geneva.
Just before the President issued his
Feb. 7, 2002 executive order, Feith developed this novel line of reasoning:
The Geneva Conventions are very important. The best way to defend them
is by honoring their "incentive system," which rewards soldiers
who fight openly and in uniform with all kinds of protections if captured.
In his book, Myers notes approvingly
that this is indeed the line Feith took with the President at an NSC
meeting on Feb. 4, 2002, to which Feith had been invited, three days
before President Bush signed the order that has now become a smoking
According to Feith, the all-important
corollary is to take care not to "promiscuously hand out POW status
to fighters who don't obey the rules." "In other words,
the best way to protect the Geneva Conventions is to gut them," as
Dahlia Lithwick of Slate put it in a commentary last July.
I suppose it could even be the case that
this seemed persuasive to President Bush, as well. Which would mean
that Doug Feith has at least two contenders for the unenviable sobriquet
with which Gen. Tommy Franks tagged him - "the f---ing stupidest
guy on the face of the earth."
It is not really funny, of course.
While researching his book, Sands, a
very astute observer, emerged from a three-hour session with Myers convinced
that Myers did not understand the implications of what was being done
and was "confused" about the decisions that were taken.
Sands writes that when he described the
interrogation techniques introduced and stressed that they were not
in the manual but rather breached U.S. military guidelines, Myers became
increasingly hesitant and troubled. Author Sands concludes that
Myers was "hoodwinked;" that "Haynes and Rumsfeld had been able
to run rings around him."
There is no doubt something to that.
And the apparent absence of Myers from the infamous torture boutiques
in the White House Situation Room, aimed at discerning which particular
techniques might be most appropriate for which "high-value" detainees,
tends to support an out-of-the-loop defense for Myers.
I imagine it should not be all that surprising,
given the way general officers are promoted these days, that Myers'
vacuousness-cum deference-boarding-on-servility-could land him at
the pinnacle of our entire military establishment. Certainly,
nothing he said or did Tuesday evening would contradict Sands' assessment
Myers still writes that he found Rumsfeld
to be "an insightful and incisive leader." The general seems
to have been putty in Rumsfeld's hands - one reason he was promoted,
My best guess is that it is a combination
of dullness, cowardice and careerism that accounts for Myers' behavior
- then and now. And, with those attributes and propensities
firmly in place, falling in with bad companions, as Richard Myers did,
can really do you in.
As we said our good-byes Tuesday evening,
one of my alumni colleagues lamented my "ugly" behavior, although
it was no more ugly than it was on May 4, 2006, during my four-minute
debate with Donald Rumsfeld in Atlanta. (Sadly, my encounter with
Myers was not broadcast live on TV.)
A Plaudit From the Press
In attendance was a reporter from the
Washington Post, but his note-taking was confined to computing whether
he should take the Post's buyout, or try to hang around for
the newspaper's inevitable funeral in a couple of years. (So don't
bother looking for a print story on the Myers event.) As we departed,
the Post-man gave me what he seemed to think was the ultimate
compliment - I should have been a journalist, he said.
I told him thanks just the same - that
my experience has been that, unless they promise not to ask "ugly"
questions and keep that promise, journalists of the Fawning Corporate
Media (FCM) are not permitted to stay around long enough to qualify
for a meager 401k - much less an eventual buyout.
At least I was consistent, retaining
with such groups an unblemished winning-no-friends-and-influencing-no-people
record, originally set three years ago when I had a chance to ask an
"ugly" question or two of Donald Rumsfeld.