Did Logistics Guy John Brennan Set Up the Torture Taping System? Did He Buy the Torture Coffin?

This was one of the most interesting little-noticed exchanges at John Brennan’s confirmation hearing last week.

CHAMBLISS: In 2002 what was your knowledge of interrogation videotapes about Abu Zubaydah, and did you seek any information about an Office of General Counsel review of them in 2002?

BRENNAN: I have — I don’t have a recollection of that, Senator.

CHAMBLISS: Of the tapes, or that request?

BRENNAN: At the time, in 2002, I do not know what my involvement or knowledge was at the time of the tapes. I believe that they — I was aware of the Abu Zubaydah debriefings and interrogation sessions being taped.

John Brennan not only knew of the torture tapes but … well, he doesn’t remember whether he asked about the OGC review of torture tapes or not.

As a threshold matter, remember that Brennan was in a logistical role at the time the torture sessions were first taped. He had nothing to do with the development of the techniques, he says. But thus far, I think no one has asked him if he procured any of a number of items the torturers used.

For example, did John Brennan help set up the torture taping system? That would explain how he knew they were taping the sessions.

But that’s not all. Remember, the Office of General Counsel reviewed the torture tapes — originally as a preliminary to them being destroyed in 2002 — to make sure what the torturers did matched what DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel approved them to do.

We know they shouldn’t have. We know the tapes should have shown the torturers exceeding the guidelines of waterboarding. We know the tapes should have shown the torture preceding the date when OLC actually approved it.

And we know the tapes should have shown the torturers putting Abu Zubaydah in a box as part of a mock burial, the only torture technique John Yoo ever labeled illegal.

In short, we know that the tapes should have shown that the torturers exceeded even the limited restrictions OLC put on them.

Instead, by the time OGC reviewed the torture tapes, 15 of the tapes were already partially or entirely destroyed. Some were taped over, some were broken, some showed the taping system had been shut off. 21 hours of Abu Zubaydah’s torture somehow did not remain on the tapes at the time of the OGC review in November to December 2002. As it happened, when the Inspector General later reviewed the tapes and compared what John McPherson, the OGC lawyer who had reviewed the tapes, actually recorded, he discovered that McPherson had found it unremarkable that the torturers were deviating from the guidelines approved by OLC.

But it appears, given Saxby’s comment, that Brennan was not so much interested in what the IG found, but in what McPherson found. Brennan appears to have been interested in what remained on the tapes after they had been partially destroyed, the first time, after the presumably most incriminating aspects of Abu Zubaydah’s torture had been destroyed.

Here’s another question. Did logistics guy John Brennan procure the waterboard the use of which exceeded the guidelines laid out by OLC? More importantly, did logistics guy John Brennan procure the box used to conduct an even-John-Yoo-said-it-was-illegal mock burial? And if so, did John Brennan know that the torturers considered the box a coffin?

Did John Brennan know, because he had done the logistics for the torture program, that the torturers had violated the only law Yoo ever put into place?

It would sure explain why the Obama Administration worked so hard to cover up the torture program.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    one can procure a waterboard? commerce is a remarkable thing.

    how ’bout just borrowing one from nations like libya, egypt, poland, rumania? the latter two nations stored them after the fall of communism. they knew there would come another time they’d be useful.

    in fact, though, i’d bet the cia doesn’t have to buy or ask for a loaner.

    i’d bet cia has its own tools, props, and materials storage room for items like waterboards and caskets that they’ve used for decades.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: Wherever they got it, getting it from there to Thailand involves some interesting logistical questions, which is what Brennan oversaw.

    That’s why I put in the UPS clip!

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    Excellent analysis

    One middling exception (if it is that at all) concerns the assertion that use of the coffin was “he only torture technique John Yoo ever labeled illegal.”

    Way back when I wrote an article that quotes Yoo on the use of drugs in interrogation.

    For drugs or procedures to rise to the level of “disrupt[ing] profoundly the senses or personality,” they must produce an extreme effect. And by requiring that they be “calculated” to produce such an effect, the statute requires that the defendant has consciously designed the acts to produce such an effect….

    By requiring that the procedures and the drugs create a profound disruption, the statute requires more than that the acts “forcibly separate” or “rend” the senses or personality. Those acts must penetrate to the core of an individual’s ability to perceive the world around him, substantially interfering with his cognitive abilities, or fundamentally alter his personality.

    According to Yoo, the “profound” nature of the disruption indicated could only be found in mental states similar to “drug-induced dementia,” “brief psychotic disorder,” obsessive-compulsive disorder, or induced suicidal or self-mutilating behavior.

    Now, while Yoo is okay with using drugs, including “truth drugs” in interrogation, he does put restrictions on it, i.e., that any drug that would cause symptoms even similar to those of “brief psychotic disorder” or self-mutilating behavior (say head butting or slamming) would therefore be tantamount to torture.

    I’d say this calls into question some of the use by CIA and DoD, which is why they are keeping their cards so close to the vest on the drugging issue.

    It also suggests that the changes in the Army Field Manual to the language on drugging — which made use of drugs even more liberal than Yoo had made it (drugging okay as long as doesn’t cause “lasting or permanent mental alteration or damage”) — more disturbing and serious than anyone but myself (I’m sad to say) has noticed thus far.

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