Dick Cheney’s Foggy Memory on Bush’s Plausible Deniability for Torture

One of just three issues this Playboy interview [marginally SFW] with Dick Cheney pressed him on (the other two being whether Bush misjudged Putin and whether Cheney’s father loved him) was whether President Bush had been briefed on the torture program.

James Rosen starts by asking whether Bush was briefed on the actual methods.

You have become publicly identified with the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that CIA officers used when questioning suspected terrorists. Your critics call those techniques torture. To your knowledge, was President Bush briefed about the actual methods that were to be employed?
I believe he was.

It would have been useful had Rosen actually read the SSCI Torture Report, because even that explains that Bush was briefed — in 2006. “[T]he president expressed concern,” the report noted, “about the ‘image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.”

Rosen then presents the disagreement between John Rizzo and George Tenet, who have said Bush wasn’t briefed, and the President himself. Cheney responds by describing a specific, undated briefing in Condi’s office.

We ask because in Decision Points, the former president’s 2010 memoir, he recalls having been briefed on the EITs. Yet former CIA general counsel John Rizzo, in his 2014 memoir, Company Man, disputes that and says that he contacted former CIA director George Tenet about it, after reading the president’s book, and that Tenet backs him up in the belief that Bush was not briefed.
No, I’m certain Bush was briefed. I also recall a session where the entire National Security Council was briefed. The meeting took place in Condi Rice’s office—I don’t think Colin Powell was there, but I think he was briefed separately—where we went down through the specific techniques that were being authorized.

Rather than pointing out that Cheney doesn’t even say Bush was at that briefing in Condi’s office (or asking for a date, which I suspect is the real secret both Bush and the CIA are trying to keep), Rosen simply asks why Cheney is certain. He then raises James Risen’s account of Bush being given plausible deniability, which Cheney quickly turns into an assessment of whether Risen has credibility rather than providing more details on when and how Bush was briefed.

Why do you say you’re certain Bush was briefed?
Well, partly because he said he was. I don’t have any doubt about that. I mean, he was included in the process. I mean, that’s not the kind of thing that we would have done without his approval.

To that point, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote in State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, published in 2006, “Cheney made certain to protect the president from personal involvement in the internal debates on the handling of prisoners. It is not clear whether Tenet was told by Cheney or other White House officials not to brief Bush or whether he made that decision on his own. Cheney and senior White House officials knew that Bush was purposely not being briefed. It appears that there was a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability.”
I don’t have much confidence in Risen.

That’s not the question. Is what he alleges here true or false?
That we tried to have deniability for the president?

Yes.
I can’t think of a time when we ever operated that way. We just didn’t. The president needed to know what we were doing and sign off on the thing. It’s like the terrorist surveillance program. You know, one of the main things I did there was to take Tenet and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden in hand and get the president’s approval for what we were doing, and there’s a classic example why I don’t believe something like this. The president wanted personal knowledge of what was going on, and he wanted to personally sign off on the program every 30 to 45 days. To suggest that somehow we ran a system that protected the president from knowledge about the enhanced interrogation techniques, I just—I don’t think it’s true. I don’t believe it.

I find Cheney’s invocation of the dragnet really, really interesting. After all, even according to Bush’s memoir, he didn’t know key details about the dragnet. Cheney told him it was going to expire on March 10 that day. Moreover, when Jim Comey briefed him the following day, he learned of problems that Cheney and others had kept from Bush.

Thus, Cheney’s invocation of the dragnet is actually a documented example of Bush not being adequately briefed.

Plus, it’s interesting given the timing. If I had to guess at this point, I would say that Bush was likely briefed on details of torture in 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, not 2006. Indeed, that may explain the 7 week delay between the time Tenet asked for reaffirmation of torture approval and when it actually got fully approved — not to mention Tenet’s still inadequately explained resignation (in Tenet’s memoir, he says it was because of the “Slam Dunk” comment attributed to him in Bob Woodward’s book many weeks earlier).

Which brings us back to Cheney invoking a vaguely remembered briefing, this one in the Oval Office.

But can you say as a fact “I know that’s not true,” rather than having to surmise?
I can remember sitting in the Oval Office with deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley and others—I think others were in there—where we talked about the techniques. And one of the things that was emphasized was the fact that the techniques were drawn from that set of practices we used in training our own people. I mean, we were not trying to hide it from the president. With all due respect, I just don’t give any credence to what Risen says there.

Cheney’s got nothing — or at least nothing he’s willing to share. And certainly nothing to document Bush being briefed before torture started.

Which is, again, what I suspect to be the issue: Bush was briefed, maybe even before the 2006 briefing the Torture Report documents. But not before the bulk of the torture happened.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

4 replies
  1. Dan says:

    ‘I can remember sitting in the Oval Office…’

    I’m sure Cheney spent a lot of time in Jr.’s office when he wasn’t there.

  2. wallace says:

    Oh for fucks sake. Quoting Hilarious Clinton..”what difference does it make now”. Let’s get fucking real. Even if you PROVED beyond a shadow of doubt that Bush, Cheney, Comey.. indeed..every last one of these insidious fucking cocksuckers who sold out this country by writing “memos” to authorize torture …WHO THE FUCK IS GOING TO PROSECUTE THEM???????????????

    I mean..I’m so tired of this bullshit I almost can’t stand it. The DEAD ARE DEAD. The tortured are still tortured and can’t get any justice. The torturers are still free and making money off their shit. The real sonsabitches like Cheney get new hearts while being interviewed 10 years later and Bush gets a presidential library…fuck …fuck …FUCK!!!

    Here’s the deal. Until the citizens of this nation rise up in biblical proportion contempt and hang these motherfuckers.. this nation will remain a shameless disgrace to humanity. PERIOD. I don’t care anymore what these degenerate psychopaths have to say anymore. If I had it in my capacity..I’d put a bullet between every one of these scum of the earths eyes, draw and quarter them..and hang the parts on the steps of the capitol for the entire planet to witness. Now..any questions?

  3. wallace says:

    ps..speaking of “Playboy interviews”..

    1967 interview of Jim Garrison, District Attorney of New Orleans, who tried to prosecute one of the conspirators in the coup d’etat of November 22, 1963:

    PLAYBOY: Many of the professional critics of the Warren Commission appear to be prompted by political motives: Those on the left are anxious to prove Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy within the establishment; and those on the right are eager to prove the assassination was an act of “the international Communist conspiracy.” Where would you place yourself on the political spectrum — right, left of center?

    GARRISON: That’s a question I’ve asked myself frequently, especially since this investigation started and I found myself in an incongruous and disillusioning battle with agencies of my own Government. I can’t just sit down and add up my political beliefs like a mathematical sum, but I think, in balance, I’d turn up somewhere around the middle. Over the years, I guess I’ve developed a somewhat conservative attitude — in the traditional libertarian sense of conservatism, as opposed to the thumbscrew-and-rack conservatism of the paramilitary right — particularly in regard to the importance of the individual as opposed to the state and the individual’s own responsibilities to humanity. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to formulate this into a coherent political philosophy, but at the root of my concern is the conviction that a human being is not a digit; he’s not a digit in regard to the state and he’s not a digit in the sense that he can ignore his fellow men and his obligations to society. I was with the artillery supporting the division that took Dachau; I arrived there the day after it was taken, when bulldozers were making pyramids of human bodies outside the camp. What I saw there has haunted me ever since. Because the law is my profession, I’ve always wondered about the judges throughout Germany who sentenced men to jail for picking pockets at a time when their own government was jerking gold from the teeth of men murdered in gas chambers. I’m concerned about all of this because it isn’t a German phenomenon; it’s a human phenomenon. It can happen here, because there has been no change and there has been no progress and there has been no increase of understanding on the part of men for their fellow man. What worries me deeply, and I have seen it exemplified in this case, is that we in America are in great danger of slowly evolving into a proto-fascist state. It will be a different kind of fascist state from the one of the Germans evolved; theirs grew out of depression and promised bread and work, while ours, curiously enough, seems to be emerging from prosperity. But in the final analysis, it’s based on power and on the inability to put human goals and human conscience above the dictates of the state. Its origins can be traced in the tremendous war machine we’ve built since 1945, the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower vainly warned us about, which now dominates every aspect of our life. The power of the states and Congress has gradually been abandoned to the Executive Department, because of war conditions; and we’ve seen the creation of an arrogant, swollen bureaucratic complex totally unfettered by the checks and balances of the Constitution. In a very real and terrifying sense, our Government is the CIA and the Pentagon, with Congress reduced to a debating society. Of course, you can’t spot this trend to fascism by casually looking around. You can’t look for such familiar signs as the swastika, because they won’t be there. We won’t build Dachaus and Auschwitzes; the clever manipulation of the mass media is creating a concentration camp of the mind that promises to be far more effective in keeping the populace in line. We’re not going to wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves in gray uniforms goose-stepping off to work. But this isn’t the test. The test is: What happens to the individual who dissents? In Nazi Germany, he was physically destroyed; here, the process is more subtle, but the end results can be the same. I’ve learned enough about the machinations of the CIA in the past year to know that this is no longer the dreamworld America I once believed in. The imperatives of the population explosion, which almost inevitably will lessen our belief in the sanctity of the individual human life, combined with the awesome power of the CIA and the defense establishment, seem destined to seal the fate of the America I knew as a child and bring us into a new Orwellian world where the citizen exists for the state and where raw power justifies any and every immoral act. I’ve always had a kind of knee-jerk trust in my Government’s basic integrity, whatever political blunders it may make. But I’ve come to realize that in Washington, deceiving and manipulating the public are viewed by some as the natural prerogatives of office. Huey Long once said, “Fascism will come to America in the name of anti-fascism.” I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.”unquote

    Now…is there anything that you don’t understand?

  4. jerryy says:

    .
    At this rate it seems we will eventually find out (when that Senate report Senator Feinstein’s staff put together when they were not defending against being spied on is finally declassified in the year 2150 or so) that all of the torture happened without anyone being aware of it other than the one person that did it and of course no one knows who that person is because Jose Rodriguez destroyed the only copy of the tape.
    .
    These articles trying to evade responsibility are making things worse, not better.
    .
    Take Jay Bybee for example. As Ms. Emptywheel has pointed out (IIRC) it seems that he did not initially know what was in the memos bearing his name. Then shortly after he became aware of what was happening, he signed off on one or two more items, then left to take on the judicial post that opened up out west. Again, IIRC.
    .
    Yet, what did he do to stop what was going on? At some point he knew wrong things were happening. So instead of denouncing them, instead of trying to get an investigation going, instead of trying to get the events stopped, he kept quiet.
    .
    If the price of silence was a judicial post, how can anyone believe any judgment he has since made while on the bench was not also one bought and sold?

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