The reawakening of the biggest scandal in the whole of the Bush administration’s bleak and brutal tenure — the fact that prisoners in the “War on Terror” were tortured not to protect America, but to find excuses to justify the invasion of Iraq — began three weeks ago, with a surprising revelation in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report into detainee abuse (PDF), and a McClatchy Newspapers report by Jonathan Landay, but yesterday it stepped up after Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show.
In a blog post for the Washington Note, Wilkerson explained that he had been so appalled by recent tapes of former Vice President Dick Cheney “extolling the virtues of harsh interrogation, torture, and his leadership,” which had been played in the run-up to his interview, that when he got home, reflecting on how everything he had heard had been “stunningly inaccurate,” he “thought long and hard about what I knew at this point in my investigations with respect to the former VP’s office.”
His conclusions were stark. All Cheney’s talk about keeping America safe, and claiming that President Obama is endangering the US by abandoning the use of “the Cheney method of interrogation and torture” is nonsense, Wilkerson wrote, for a variety of generally sound reasons that can be gleaned from the post.
These, however, were the crucial passages:
[W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the US but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda.
So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qaeda-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.
As Bob Fertik noted on Democrats.com, this is extraordinarily important for three particular reasons: firstly, because of Wilkerson’s credibility — and his access to certain privileged information during the Bush years; secondly, because he states that “the desire to manufacture an Iraq-al-Qaeda link was the principal priority — not secondary to preventing another attack,” and thirdly because, reinforcing conclusions I reached in two recent articles, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah? and Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low, Wilkerson stated that “the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion” — specifically, the memos purporting to redefine torture and authorize its use by the CIA, which were issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on August 1, 2002.
To recap, while I wait to see what impact Wilkerson’s revelations will have, these are the steps that led us to the reawakening of the Iraq-al-Qaeda torture story:
In the Senate report, released on April 21, Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist with the Army’s 85th Medical Detachment’s Combat Stress Control Team, who said that, with two colleagues, he was “hijacked” into providing an advisory role to the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo, stated that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
The day after, Jonathan Landay picked up on Burney’s comments, and talked to a “former senior US intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue,” who told him that Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld “demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al-Qaeda-Iraq collaboration.”
“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the official explained. “The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al-Qaeda and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there. There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder. Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA … and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.”
He added, however, that senior officials in the administration “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information.”
Since April 22, numerous commentators, myself included, have probed the story further, establishing that torture clearly began before August 1, 2002, for example, and recalling that, last December, former Pentagon analysts told Vanity Fair’s David Rose that Abu Zubaydah, the supposed “senior al-Qaeda operative,” whose torture (as Wilkerson confirmed) began in April 2002, was also tortured to produce information about connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
However, an even more significant story concerned another “high-value detainee” mentioned by Wilkerson: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of the Khaldan training camp, who was seized in December 2001 and sent to be tortured in Egypt in February 2002. It was there that al-Libi made the false confession about al-Qaeda operatives receiving information about chemical and biological weapons from Saddam Hussein that was used by Colin Powell in February 2003, in an attempt to encourage the UN to approve the forthcoming invasion of Iraq, and it was al-Libi’s death last Sunday in a Libyan prison that brought the full horror of this story back to life.
Unlike 14 other “high-value detainees” — including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — who were transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, al-Libi never made it to Guantánamo, and was, instead, rendered back to Libya by an administration that not only had no further use for him, but also wanted to make sure that his secrets would remain hidden forever.
His death, two weeks after representatives of Human Rights Watch tried — and failed — to talk to him in Tripoli’s Abu Salim jail, and as Abu Zubaydah’s US attorney, Brent Mickum, had begun to make tentative attempts to communicate with him, is therefore remarkably suspicious. The Libyan authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but as I explained in two previous articles, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence? and Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, this is highly unlikely, and it is far more probable that Colonel Gaddafi had him killed because he too was threatened by what al-Libi could have revealed about his long years of torture, the relationship between the US and Libyan governments, and the lies he told in prisons around the world.
Whatever the truth about al-Libi’s death, it should not blind us to the fact that, as far as America is concerned — and as Lawrence Wilkerson has just reiterated so forcefully — the most urgent response to his death must be to confront Dick Cheney — and, it should be noted, Donald Rumsfeld — with the evidence of their extraordinary and unprecedented betrayal, not only of America’s values, but of the American people themselves.
As Paul Krugman explained in the New York Times on April 22, in an opinion piece that should really have been emblazoned on the front page,
Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.
There’s a word for this: it’s evil.
POSTSCRIPT: So Marcy’s all over this story at Empty Wheel, picking up on the fact that Lawrence Wilkerson noted that al-Libi was waterboarded in Egypt, and proposing that “Wilkerson is stating, clearly, that in early 2002, Dick Cheney ordered Ibn Shaykh al-Libi to be tortured even after the interrogation team reported that al-Libi was compliant.”
I’m not entirely sure that it’s correct to infer that Cheney had any direct contact with al-Libi’s Egyptian torturers, and I also agree with several readers who have noted that it’s unclear who the “compliant” detainee was whose further torture was ordered by Cheney — but it seems apparent to me that this other detainee is not al-Libi.
I’m also struggling to understand the timeline. Al-Libi’s lies about Iraq were first noted by the Defense Intelligence Agency on February 22, but Wilkerson confidently stated that “the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002.” I’m inclined to think that al-Libi’s torture regarding Iraq actually continued for many months in Egypt, before someone — Cheney, I presume — was happy with it, and that therefore the “compliant” detainee, sometime in April or May 2002, was Zubaydah.
For another article about Lawrence Wilkerson, see: Lawrence Wilkerson Tells The Truth About Guantánamo.
Andy Worthington is the author of 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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.