Dick Cheney: more horrors from the ‘Vice-President for Torture’

26.6.07

Dick CheneyRequired reading this week is Barton Gellman and Jo Becker’s four-part series on Dick Cheney for the Washington Post, which highlights the Vice President’s role as the malevolent power behind the American imperial throne. While this is not exactly news to anyone with an inquiring mind, the authors –- in interviews with over 200 people who have worked for or against Cheney over the years –- have assembled some compelling new information to add to the already extensive list of the VP’s crimes. The first and second articles (published Sunday and Monday) recount, as the authors describe it, “Cheney’s campaign to magnify presidential war-making authority, arguably his most important legacy.”

Of particular interest are the passages which spell out, often more explicitly than previously reported, the role played by Cheney and his coterie of close advisors –- in particular, his long-time legal advisor and chief counsel David Addington, White House deputy counsel Timothy Flanigan and Justice Department lawyer John Yoo –- in the creation of five documents underpinning the administration’s response to 9/11, which, in various ways, sought to grant unfettered executive power to the President and attempted to discard international laws regarding the torture and abuse of prisoners. These were: the Authorization for Use of Military Force (18 September 2001), a secret memorandum authorizing the warrantless surveillance of communications to and from the United States (25 September 2001), Military Order No 1, authorizing the creation of “Military Commissions” to try al-Qaeda suspects and their accomplices (13 November 2001), the memorandum of 25 January 2002, referring to the Geneva Conventions as “quaint,” which surfaced in a Presidential announcement, on 6 February 2002, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield, and the notorious “Torture Memo” of 1 August 2002, which sought to redefine torture as nothing less than organ failure or death.

To set the scene for the legal coup d’etat that took place in 2001 and 2002, Gellman and Becker describe the impromptu war cabinet in the bunker beneath the White House, where, on 11 September 2001, while the President was in Florida, reading ‘The Pet Goat’ to a group of children, Cheney impassively watched the aftermath of the attacks and then –- ignoring national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and State Department officials, who were in the room with him –- summoned Addington to begin “contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the president need for his response?” By that evening, Flanigan had also been recruited, and Yoo was soon to follow.

Gellman and Becker point out that it was Flanigan, with advice from Yoo, who drafted the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gave the President the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001” –- and they add a comment from Yoo (who, unlike Cheney and Addington, agreed to be interviewed), explaining that “they used the broadest possible language because ‘this war was so different, you can’t predict what might come up’.” In fact, as the authors point out, they “knew very well what would come next: the interception –- without a warrant –- of communications to and from the United States.” Although warrantless communications intercepts had been forbidden by federal law since 1978, Gellman and Becker point out that they were “justified, in secret, as ‘incident to’ the authority Congress had just granted” the President, in a memorandum that Yoo finalized on 25 September.

Completely bypassing Congress and the courts, the surveillance memo marked the first, but by no means the last occasion when Cheney and his advisors cut potential objectors out of the loop. Foremost among the first wave of the excluded was John Bellinger, the ranking national security lawyer in the White House, who reported to Condoleezza Rice. Bellinger should, in theory, have been included in all discussions about surveillance, but according to a senior government lawyer cited by Gellman and Becker, he was regarded with “open contempt” by Addington.

While Cheney had been working behind the scenes in the drafting of these documents –- fulfilling the nickname “Backseat,” which he had been given by secret service officials –- Gellman and Becker describe how, on 13 November 2001, under the cover of his regular weekly meeting with the President, he played the leading role in circulating and gaining approval for the presidential order –- Military Order No 1 –- which stripped foreign terror suspects of access to any courts, authorized their indefinite imprisonment without charge, and also authorized the creation of “Military Commissions,” before which they could be tried using secret evidence. Approved within an hour by only two other figures in the White House –- associate counsel Bradford Berenson, and deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen, whose objections that it had to be seen by other Presidential advisors were only dropped after “rapid, urgent persuasion” that the President “was standing by to sign and that the order was too sensitive to delay” –- the order’s swift and unprecedented passage bore all the hallmarks of Cheney’s preferred modus operandi: that of an ultra-secretive control freak who, while serving the President, was actually running the show himself.

Based on an opinion written by John Yoo on 6 November –- that the President did not need approval from Congress or the federal courts for his actions –- the draft for Military Order No 1 sidelined Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, we are told, angrily confronted Cheney –- to no avail –- on November 10, after learning that the draft “gave the Justice Department no role in choosing which alleged terrorists would be tried,” and completely bypassed both Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice. Gellman and Becker report that Powell asked, “What the hell just happened?” after seeing news of the order announced that evening on CNN. In addition, Cheney made sure that his own role was concealed: the draft that was passed to Berenson in the White House –- previously approved by Addington and Flanigan –- made no mention whatsoever of his role in its creation.

With the President’s right to capture and imprison anyone apparently guaranteed, Cheney and his advisers turned their attention to the treatment of prisoners. Cheney’s opening gambit, the day after Bush signed Military Order No 1, was to tell the US Chamber of Commerce that terrorists do not “deserve to be treated as prisoners of war.” The authors point out, however, that this was a decision that the President had not yet made, and that it was another ten weeks before he “ratified the policy that Cheney had declared”; namely, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield.

While a struggle over the treatment of prisoners raged within the administration, Gellman and Becker reveal that, shortly after Guantánamo opened, a CIA delegation came to the White House to explain, as John Yoo put it, that they were “going to have some real difficulties getting actionable intelligence from detainees,” if interrogators were obliged to confine themselves to treatment permitted by the Geneva Conventions. It was, said Yoo, “the first time that the issue of interrogations” surfaced among high-ranking White House officials, and Gellman and Becker explain that, “From that moment, well before previous accounts have suggested, Cheney turned his attention to the practical business of crushing a captive’s will to resist.” It was, they reveal, Addington who then wrote the notorious memorandum dismissing the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” –- to which the rather less articulate Alberto Gonzales put his name –- in which the Conventions’ “strict limits on questioning of enemy prisoners” were seen as hindering attempts “to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists,” and it was Addington who, two weeks later, provided the President with the words for his deliberately vague promise, on 6 February, that detainees would be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles” of the Geneva Conventions.

The pinnacle of Cheney’s revolutionary sadism was the “Torture Memo” of August 2002, and Gellman and Becker once more bring new information to bear on its development, confirming the suspicions of those who have studied this period closely that the new “no limits” policy actually came into being after the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad on 28 March 2002. John Yoo explained that he was summoned to the White House after CIA officers asked “what the legal limits on interrogation are.” The resulting opinion –- that the definition of torture could be reinterpreted to mean suffering that was “equivalent in intensity” to the pain of organ failure or death –- was issued on 1 August, signed by assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and widely credited to Yoo, but in conversation with Gellman and Becker, Yoo revealed that Addington, Flanigan and Gonzales had all contributed to the opinion, and that Addington was responsible for another of the memo’s radical claims: that, as Commander in Chief, the President could authorize torture if he felt that it was necessary, and that Congress “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.”

Yoo also confirmed that a second opinion was signed off on 1 August, which, unlike the first –- leaked after the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004 –- has never been made public, and an unnamed source cited by the authors explained that it contained a long list of techniques approved for use by the CIA, which included waterboarding, but apparently drew the line at threatening to bury a prisoner alive.

The final twist in the dirty saga of how Cheney and his advisors brought torture out of the closet and into the mainstream is, surprisingly, provided by John Yoo, who admitted to Gellman and Becker that he “verbally warned” lawyers for Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that “it would be a risky policy to permit military interrogators to use the harshest techniques, because the armed services, vastly larger than the CIA, could overuse the tools or exceed the limits.” “I always thought that only the CIA should do this,” he said, “but people at the White House and at DoD felt differently.”

With even Yoo admitting doubts, the spotlight on torture’s advocates remains firmly fixed not only on the semi-invisible Dick Cheney, but also on the even less visible figure of David Addington. Gonzales, throughout, is dismissed as a fool, Bush is barely visible, and Flanigan, who left the White House in December 2002, dropped off the radar after taking up commercial work and becoming embroiled in the Jack Abramoff scandal, which scuppered his nomination as deputy Attorney General in 2005, but Gellman and Becker’s exposure of the roles played by Cheney and Addington in rebranding the United States as a torture-wielding dictatorship will hopefully encourage a few more of their fellow citizens to scrutinize the power behind the President’s fading throne.

For more on Guantánamo and US torture policies, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

For more on Dick Cheney’s role in the Military Commissions and the detention of prisoners in the “War on Terror,” see the following articles: The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, Silence on war crimes as the US election campaign ends, Why Guantánamo Must Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Parts One and Two).

73 Responses

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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