Some time in mid-2004, 8 high ranking National Security officials gave then presiding FISA Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly a briefing. Their goal was to convince her the then halted and now-discontinued Internet dragnet program was so important, and the terrorist threat against the US so great, she should write a shoddy legal opinion authorizing NSA to restart the program under the authority of the FISA Pen Register statute.
As part of the briefing, they replicated a process they had used for Bush’s illegal wiretap program: to have CIA’s analytical people write what they called a “scary memo” explaining why al Qaeda was so dangerous we had to continue that dragnet.
After the terrorism analysts completed their portion of the memoranda, the DCI Chief of Staff added a paragraph at the end of the memoranda stating that the individuals and organizations involved in global terrorism (and discussed in the memoranda) possessed the capability and intention to’ undertake further terrorist attacks within the United States. The DCI Chief of Staff recalled that the paragraph was provided to him initially by a senior White House official. The paragraph included the DCI’s recommendation to the President that he authorize the NSA to conduct surveillance activities under the PSP. CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) attorneys reviewed the draft threat assessment memoranda to determine whether they contained sufficient threat information and a compelling case for reauthorization of the PSP. [my emphasis]
As head of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (and later as head of the nascent National Counterterrorism Center), John Brennan oversaw that “scary memo.”
Last year, John Brennan admitted that he used information derived from the torture program (he calls it the detention and interrogation program) for those “scary memos.”
Burr: I’m still not clear on whether you think the information from CIA interrogations saved lives. Have you ever made a representation to a court, including the FISA court, about the type and importance of information learned from detainees including detainees in the CIA detention and interrogation program?
Brennan: Ahm, first of all, in the first part of your question, as to you’re not sure whether I believe that there has been information … I don’t know myself.
Burr: I said I wasn’t clear whether I understood, whether whether I was clear.
Brennan: And I’m not clear at this time either because I read a report that calls into question a lot of the information that I was provided earlier on, my impressions. Um. There, when I was in the government as the head of the national counterterrorism center I know that I had signed out a number of um affirmations related to the uh continuation of certain programs uh based on the analysis and intelligence that was available to analysts. I don’t know exactly what it was at the time, but we can take a look at that.
Burr: But the committee can assume that you had faith if you made that claim to a court or including the FISA court, you had faith in the documents in the information that was supplied to you to make that declaration.
Brennan: Absolutely. At the time if I had made any such affirmation, i would have had faith that the information I was provided was an accurate representation. [my emphasis]
We can imagine the kind of things Brennan might have used in his “scary memos” and that briefing to Kollar-Kotelly, on which the entire FISC-authorized dragnet .
Hassan Ghul — whom CIA tortured even after he provided critical information about Osama bin Laden’s courier — was already in custody, and given uncertainty about when his torture started, may have provided such information.
A bit of a row has started between Jay Rosen and Will Saletan for the latter’s attempt to “see how [the torturers] saw what they did” in this post. Frankly, I think Rosen mischaracterizes the problem with Saletan’s post. It’s not so much that Saletan parrots the euphemisms of the torturers. It’s that he accepts what John Rizzo, Michael Hayden, Jose Rodriguez, and Marc Thiessen said – in a presentation with multiple internal contradictions even before you get to the outright demonstrable lies — as the truth.
I’m particularly troubled by the way Saletan takes this assertion (which is based on the pseudo science behind the torture):
EITs were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly. Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren’t torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques.
And concludes this, which I take to be Saletan’s belief, not the torturers’:
Fourth, the right question to ask about the EIT program isn’t whether people lie under torture but whether using torture to train human beings in obedience is wrong despite the payoffs.
In an effort to take the torturers’ comments — and very notable silences, which Saletan doesn’t discuss — in good faith, Saletan presumes we might treat obedience among detainees being exploited as one of its “payoffs.”
Doing so ignores how the Bush Administration used torture to get detainees to tell useful lies, the most important of those being that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, which is one of the key pieces of “intelligence” that was used to get us into the Iraq War. That lie from Ibn Sheikh al-Libi — extracted through the use of mock burial and waterboarding, the two main forms of torture discussed in the panel – contributed directly to the unnecessary deaths of 4,000 Americans, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Hayden’s claim we always knew the answer to questions we asked under torture
Here’s the full exchange from which Saletan takes as truthful the assertion that torture is about “learned helplessness” (no one here uses Mitchell and Jessen’s term, but that’s what we know they called it).
MR. THIESSEN: Mike, one of the – one of the scenes, you have the interrogator throws the – whoever the detainee is down and starts pouring water over his face and starts shouting, when’s the last time you saw bin Laden? And I think that gets to a deep misunderstanding of how interrogation actually worked. And one of the things you explained to me when I was working on my book and on the president’s speech was that there’s a difference between interrogation and debriefing, and the purpose of interrogation was not – we actually didn’t ask questions that we didn’t know the answers to. It was to ascertain whether they were being truthful or not. (So if you ?) walk through that?
MR. HAYDEN: I’m almost willing to make an absolute statement that we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment – which is what was, you know, tell me this or I’ll hurt you more, I’m not your friend – for about a third of our detainees. By the way, for two thirds of our detainees, this wasn’t necessary. Now, I’m willing to admit that the existence of the option may have influenced the two-thirds who said, well, let’s talk, all right? I mean – I mean, let’s be candid with one another. But for about a third, techniques were used not to elicit, again, information in the moment, but to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation, whereby – and then you recall the scene in the movie after the detainee is cleaned up and they’re having this lengthy conversation – for the rest of the detention, and in some cases it’s years – it’s a conversation. It’s a debriefing. It’s going back and forth with the kind of dialogue that you saw in that scene about a – about a third of the way through the movie.
You know a lot of people kind of reflexively say – they’ll say anything to make you stop, which may actually be true. That’s why we didn’t ask them questions while this was going on. Again, as John said, I mean, you know – these things weren’t gentle or kind, but the impact – and I think Jose’s written very thoughtfully about this – the impact was psychological. The impact is you are no longer in control of your destiny, all right? You are in our hands, and therefore, that movement into the zone of cooperation as opposed to the zone of defiance. But Jose’s got more of the fine print on that. [my emphasis]
As I mentioned the other day, I still haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure. But Thiessen’s effort to dismiss the claim that we asked detainees where Osama bin Laden was while being waterboarding may be an effort to rebut Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s assertion that he lied about OBL’s location to get them to stop waterboarding him — all while hiding the importance of the courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who would eventually lead to OBL.
Now, Hayden’s claim is so obviously false as to be almost pathetic.
The ticking timebomb that blows up Hayden’s claim
It’s a claim that Rodriguez — in the very same appearance — undermines, when he describes turning to torture out of sheer ignorance.
MR. THIESSEN: Follow-up, Jose. I mean, take us back to – since we’re pulling the broader picture – take us back to September 11 th , 2001. You know, we’ve just been hit – there’s smoke in the ground in New York, buildings have fallen, the Pentagon is broken. And what do we know about al-Qaida? I mean, did we know that KSM was the operational commander of al Qaida or that he had this – or that members of his network – or all this information that we take for granted that we know now?
MR. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, we didn’t know that much. Continue reading
Update: Let me make this clear: I am not commenting on the content of the movie. I am commenting on the content of John Rizzo’s reactions to the movie, particularly his depiction about when and how and by whom “the box” was approved, which — as I say several times — get to the core of the legal problems with torture.
In a development I could have predicted, one of former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s chief complaints with Zero Dark Thirty has to do with how the movie depicted “the box.” (This exchange comes from the first comments Rizzo made at an AEI event with him, Dick Cheney flack Marc Thiessen, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, and the director of the torture program, Jose Rodriguez).
MR. RIZZO: The interrogation scenes – I mean, they were – they were striking. They were hard to watch for me, having lived through this and how the – how the actual techniques came to be, and all the safeguards we put on them, all the monitoring by medical personnel during the course of the interrogation – you know, again, it’s a movie, so you know, the character in the movie, the interrogator, seemingly making stuff up as you went along, you’re not talking – OK, bring on the water and –
MR. : (Off mic) – get the buckets.
MR. RIZZO: – and get the buckets – now, the box – people have asked me about the box. And since this whole thing has been declassified now, most of you probably know that one of the techniques was a box, putting a detainee in a box for a – for a limited duration. Now, the box in the movie is not the kind of box that was – that was used. When I say all this, I don’t want to downplay or leave any impression that the actual program, the actual – the actual waterboarding was, you know, was tame or benign. I mean, it was a very aggressive technique, as were all the – all the others. But – so on the whole, I mean, I went into it – I went into it telling myself it was going to be a movie. I was frankly relieved that there were no lawyers involved in the movie. (Laughter.) I would have just spent the next four years at cocktail parties explaining why I wasn’t that lawyer. So I was – so I mean, on the whole, it’s as they said. It was a mixed bag, but it was a terrific movie. And you know, I think it did really take no sides and Miss Bigelow and Mr. Boal, I think, skillfully teed up the complicated moral questions of all of this we’re facing, especially in those first few scary months after the 9/11 attacks.
MR. THIESSEN: Can I – just to follow up on that. I mean, you know, you were the chief legal officer at the time. I mean, would you have authorized the interrogation techniques the way they were depicted? I mean, explain the difference in the box – (chuckles) – explain the – you know, explain that you – do people just throw somebody on a mat and start pouring water over their heads? I mean –
MR. RIZZO: No, no, the – first of all, you know, it was – it was “Mother, May I.” Those interrogators were not allowed to adlib. There were certain specific –as the memos – OLC memos show at the time, I mean, it was a – there was a meticulous procedure to undertake. And before the use of the waterboard – they will confirm this – the interrogators at the site would have to come back in writing, explain why they thought the waterboard was necessary, it would be approved at headquarters. During the time the waterboard was used, which was only until mid-2003, it took the CIA director to approve the use. So it was a much more modern program. Now, the box – I mean, a box is not pleasant. First of all, there is – there was a big box authorized that the detainee could stand in and a smaller box. It wasn’t – it didn’t appear to me to be quite as small as what was depicted in the movie. But yes, there was a box technique. But again, the – I mean, when I – you know, everyone can look at this in a different way. I just had the impression from the scene that the guy was sort of, you know adlibbing as he went along, which was, believe me, far from the – far from the reality. [my emphasis]
The box — particularly the apparent portrayal (I haven’t yet seen the movie) that the torturer ad-libbed when he introduced the box — is as big a concern of Rizzo’s as waterboarding is.
Of course it is.
That’s because the coffin — later dubbed a small box to give it legal cover — used to conduct a mock burial with Abu Zubaydah is the at the heart of the legal problems with torture.
As these posts lay out (one, two, three, four), one of several main reasons CIA asked the Office of Legal Counsel for a memo authorizing torture is because Ali Soufan saw Abu Zubaydah’s torturers prepare to put Abu Zubaydah in a coffin (it’s unclear whether he or his partner Steve Gaudin saw them actually use the coffin). That is one of the things — perhaps the thing — that Soufan labeled “borderline torture.” And because an FBI officer had told CIA’s contractors he might need to prosecute them for what he had seen, CIA needed more durable legal cover than the daily approvals given by Alberto Gonzales every night.
Because an FBI officer had labeled the things approved by the White House, on the President’s authority, illegal.
Which is why John Rizzo and John Yoo started writing first the July 13, 2002 memo generally authorizing torture (this memo is what the CIA would ultimately rely on to claim things like the murder of Gul Rahman were legal) and then, several weeks later, the Bybee Memo laying out the approved torture techniques in detail.
John Rizzo tried to get John Yoo to approve the technique that had already been used on Abu Zubaydah, the one Ali Soufan had labeled illegal. He tried to get mock burial approved as a technique; he kept trying right up until the last days before the Bybee Memo was finalized. But for some reason — I suspect, because Michael Chertoff had already agreed with the FBI that the mock burial Ali Soufan complained about was illegal — it was not included in the final list.
Instead, John Yoo and Jay Bybee approved “small box confinement.” Something that, if everyone remained silent about the intent and desired effect of shoving someone in a coffin-shaped box and leading them to believe they’d be buried alive, would both retroactively approve the use of a coffin that Abu Zubadayh’s (and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s) torturers had already used, but also let them use mock burial in the future, in spite of the fact that John Yoo – even John Yoo – had deemed it illegal.
One of the main things an FBI officer judged illegal — mock burial, a technique that had already been used, on the authority of the President — is the only single torture technique John Yoo ever deemed illegal.
Again, I have not yet paid to see the CIA’s propaganda effort. But John Rizzo, at least — the man who tried so hard to get the OLC to approve mock burial — is very concerned both about the size of the box in question (the SERE document used to label it “small box confinement” prescribed size and time limits), but more importantly that torturer in the movie is depicted as using the coffin-shaped box without first getting approval for it.
The movie, it seems, shows a torturer using a coffin before John Yoo and John Rizzo would have deliberated for weeks and decided to call it small box confinement. The movie, it seems, shows a torturer using a coffin to conduct a mock burial [Update: I've been told they don't do a burial in the movie, though it does depict adlib], and doing so in terms that make it clear that the coffin preceded the DOJ approval for it.
I’m extrapolating from Rizzo’s comments, but it seems likely that his problem with the box is that ZD30 depicts its use in precisely the terms that make it illegal, the one act of torture labeled illegal as it was happening, one of the main acts of torture the OLC memos were designed to provide legal cover for.
Frankly, I’m sympathetic to Rizzo’s complaint that this depiction of a torturer ad-libbing by using a coffin is inaccurate (though not to his claim that it was an OLC memo that limited the torture). After all, we know that the White House was responding to the torturers’ “Mother, May I” on a daily or near-daily basis.
We know that the White House was renewing its Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification approval for things like mock burial at each step of the process. So it’s not like the torturers executed a mock burial without approval.
The problem, however, is that they executed a mock burial with the President’s approval, weeks and months before the DOJ would deem that one torture technique illegal.
The most interesting aspect of Michael Mukasey’s retort to John McCain’s op-ed calling him a liar is not the content–that’s the same old trite sophism–but rather the publication details of it.
It appears not under Mukasey’s byline, but under Dick Cheney’s speech-writer’s byline, complete with a picture. And when he introduces Mukasey’s words, Marc Thiessen doesn’t use any of those trappings of grammar or publication we normally use to indicate direct quotations from others, like quotation marks or a blockquote. Rather, Thiessen just says “here is his statement:” and then launches right into “Senator McCain described as “false” my statement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed broke under harsh interrogation…”
The seamlessness between Thiessen and Mukasey speaking in the first person all has the wonderful effect of emphasizing that Mukasey’s original statement was simply another product of Dick Cheney’s torture apologist PR campaign. In a bid to salvage the moral capitulations Mukasey made to become Attorney General, he now speaks in the voice of Dick Cheney’s flack.
And note the rather incredible ethical lapse here? McCain’s op-ed, remember, was published in the WaPo, the same paper Mukasey–I mean Thiessen’s–response is in. At current count, McCain’s op-ed has 778 Tweets and 5837 recommendations–22 times as many recommendations as Thiessen’s own op-ed on torture published two days earlier. [Update: And Greg Sargent did a post on McCain’s Senate speech, which itself has 6661 recommends at this point.] Whether McCain’s op-ed made Fred Hiatt vomit or not, it has brought the WaPo a great deal of traffic and attention, precisely what newspapers generally like to do with their op-ed pages. Generate controversy, influence debate, get traffic.
But Thiessen didn’t link McCain’s op-ed! He prevented the WaPo from enjoying the stickiness that a heated debate conducted within its own pages can give.
Of course, he also made it a lot more difficult for his–um, I mean Mukasey’s–readers to compare Mukasey’s rebuttal with McCain’s own op-ed. Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–must hope that readers don’t see that McCain’s claim had everything to do with whether torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to Osama bin Laden, whereas Thiessen’s–um, I mean Mukasey’s rebuttal–clings to KSM’s use of a nickname that the US already knew. Or maybe Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–didn’t want his readers to know that KSM lied under torture and actually hindered the hunt for OBL, even after Thiessen’s–um, I mean Mukasey’s–cherished torture was used.
Or maybe Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–is hiding the much more powerful argument McCain made (which, as Amy Davidson lays out, was unfortunately diminished by McCain’s call for no prosecutions), in which McCain talks about the moral imperative not to torture.
As we debate how the United States can best influence the course of the Arab Spring, can’t we all agree that the most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of a nation that holds an individual’s human rights as superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government? Individuals might forfeit their life as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that respect to others.
All of these arguments have the force of right, but they are beside the most important point. Ultimately, this is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.
You see, this is all about Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–engaging in another round of sophism, of setting facts loose in a haze of illogical statements to confuse readers. To allow readers to see a clear assertion that torture violates America’s claims to moral standing might clarify what Thiessen and those he speaks for are trying so desperately to muddle.
Jane Mayer has a great general purpose slapdown of torture apologist Marc Thiessen love letter to torture. She hits on most of the weaknesses of Thiessen’s arguments: his false claims about what prevented the 2006 liquid explosive plane plot, apologists’ very selective examination of what counts as an attack on American, the silence about Ibn Sheik al-Libi’s (and others’) false confessions, demonstrably false claims that no one at Gitmo was ever tortured.
But there’s a point she makes that really ought to be the focus of push back against all torture apologists: the Bush Administration ignored repeated warnings about the imminent al Qaeda attack in 2001, and any ignorance about al Qaeda–which Thiessen claims was general–belongs to Bush’s top leaders, not the intelligence community.
Thiessen, citing [Michael] McConnell, claims that before the C.I.A. began interrogating detainees the U.S. knew “virtually nothing” about Al Qaeda. But McConnell was not in the government in the years immediately before 9/11. He retired as the director of the National Security Agency in 1996, and did not rejoin the government until 2007. Evidently, he missed a few developments during his time in the private sector, such as the C.I.A.’s founding, in 1996, of its bin Laden unit—the only unit devoted to a single figure. There was also bin Laden’s declaration of war on America, in 1996, and his 1998 indictment in New York, after Al Qaeda’s bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The subsequent federal trial of the bombing suspects, in New York, produced thousands of pages of documents exposing the internal workings of Al Qaeda. A state’s witness at the trial, a former Al Qaeda member named Jamal al-Fadl, supplied the F.B.I. with invaluable information about the group, including its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. (Fadl did so without any coercion other than the hope of a future plea bargain. Indeed, the F.B.I., without using violence, has persuaded dozens of other suspected terrorists to coöperate, including, most recently, the Christmas Day bomber.)
In order to make the case that America was blind to the threat of Al Qaeda in the days before 9/11, Thiessen skips over the scandalous amount of intelligence that reached the Bush White House before the attacks. In February, 2001, the C.I.A.’s director, George Tenet, called Al Qaeda “the most immediate and serious threat” to the country. Richard Clarke, then the country’s counterterrorism chief, tried without success to get Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on Al Qaeda. Thomas Pickard, then the F.B.I.’s acting director, has testified that Attorney General John Ashcroft told him that he wanted to hear no more about Al Qaeda. On August 6, 2001, Bush did nothing in response to a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” As Tenet later put it, “The system was blinking red.”
(I would add that refusal of Thiessen’s precious CIA to share information about Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar also prevented us from acting on the biggest lead that could have prevented the attack.)
This point is not repeated enough, perhaps out of some sense of comity toward a guy, Cheney, who has spent the last year (really, his entire life) breaking every rule of comity in DC.
Out of ignorance of al Qaeda, arrogance that only loyal insiders should participate in setting security priorities, and plain old bad judgment about the potential threat of terrorists, the Bush Administration failed to act on clear warnings that we would be hit on 9/11. Those are, not surprisingly, precisely the same characteristics drove us to ignore our experts on interrogation and instead follow the word of a bunch of hucksters who wanted to get rich off of torturing other human beings.
Every time someone like Thiessen attempts to push his propaganda, we really ought to be asking why we should trust the propagandist of the guys who are still trying to overcompensate for having failed in the first place.