On Bush’s Waterboarding Claims, UK Media Loses Its Moral Compass by Andy Worthington

by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
9 November, 2010

The mainstream media likes to claim that it has high journalistic standards, but when the opportunity for a sensational headline turns up, those principles are often abandoned. A recent example of this was the hysterical response to the supposed swine flu epidemic last year, and a new example — central to my work and that of many others chipping away at the enduring lies of the “War on Terror” – is currently sweeping the UK.

Led by the Times, whose headline today is, “George W. Bush: waterboarding saved London from attacks,” newspapers and broadcasters have uncritically parrotted the former US President’s claims, failing to mention that waterboarding is torture, and that torture is a crime, for which Bush can and should be prosecuted, and also failing to mention the lack of evidence for his claim that the use of waterboarding saved London from any planned terrorist attacks.

All of these problems are highlighted in the Times‘ front-page article, whose first few paragraphs are available online (the rest is hidden behind Rupert Murdoch’s unpopular firewall). Reporter Ben Macintyre, observing the protocol that, since 9/11, has led to the mainstream media refusing to recognize waterboarding as an ancient torture technique, whose use — in the Vietnam War, for example — led to the prosecution of the US military officer involved, described how Bush “offered a vigorous defence of the coercive interrogation technique,” to which three supposed “high-value detainees” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — were subjected, and “denied that waterboarding, which simulates drowning, amounted to torture.”

“Coercive interrogation technique” is, of course, Bush-speak for “torture,” and is all part of the pretence that a technique known to the honest torturers of the Spanish Inquisition as “tortura del agua” can be repackaged, with the advice of corrupt lawyers in the Justice Department, as an “enhanced interrogation technique” that is legally permissible. In addition, waterboarding is not, as the Times claimed, a process that “simulates drowning,” but is actually a form of controlled drowning, which is rather a different matter.

In the US, the former President has so far managed to escape accountability for his actions, after an internal Justice Department report — examining the behaviour of the lawyers who twisted the law out of shape in a clumsy and disgraceful attempt to redefine torture so that it could be used by CIA operatives under Bush’s command — was whitewashed in February this year. Although the original report concluded that the lawyers in question — John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee — were guilty of “professional misconduct,” a senior DoJ fixer, David Margolis, was allowed to override those conclusions, claiming that Yoo and Bybee had only exercised “poor judgment.”

Critics of these conclusions include President Obama and the US Attorney General Eric Holder, who have both stated that waterboarding is torture, and Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2008 (PDF, p. 31), after CIA director Gen. Mike Hayden first admitted that three prisoners had been waterboarded, that he believes waterboarding violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the baseline protection for all prisoners in wartime (which the Bush administration chose to ignore from February 2002 until June 2006, when the US Supreme Court compelled them to reinstate it). Common Article 3 prevents “cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

This is the exchange between Sen. Carl Levin and Lt. Gen. Maples:

SEN. LEVIN: General, do you believe that waterboarding is consistent with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions?
LTG MAPLES: No, sir, I don’t.
SEN. LEVIN: Do you believe it’s humane?
LTG MAPLES: No, sir. I think it would go beyond that bound.

In addition, Bent Sørensen, a former member of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, and now a Senior Medical Consultant to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, stated unequivocally in February 2008:

It’s a clear-cut case: Waterboarding can without any reservation be labeled as torture. It fulfils all of the four central criteria that according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) defines an act of torture. First, when water is forced into your lungs in this fashion, in addition to the pain you are likely to experience an immediate and extreme fear of death. You may even suffer a heart attack from the stress or damage to the lungs and brain from inhalation of water and oxygen deprivation. In other words there is no doubt that waterboarding causes severe physical and/or mental suffering — one central element in the UNCAT’s definition of torture. In addition the CIA’s waterboarding clearly fulfills the three additional definition criteria stated in the Convention for a deed to be labeled torture, since it is 1) done intentionally, 2) for a specific purpose and 3) by a representative of a state — in this case the US.

As well as failing to mention any of these criticisms — by people whose knowledge of the law was considerably deeper than that of George W. Bush — the Times also uncritically reported the former President’s claim that the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri “helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States,” even though no evidence has ever been presented to back up these claims.

Critics believe, with considerable justification, that these “plots,” like the “dirty bomb plot” to attack New York — in which British resident Binyam Mohamed and US citizen Jose Padilla were implicated (by Abu Zubaydah), and which had involved nothing more than some casual browsing on the Internet — were similarly spectral, and, as I explained in an article last Friday, “No appetite for prosecution: In memoir, Bush admits he authorised the use of torture, but no one cares,” which cast a critical eye on Bush’s culpability for torture and his dubious claims regarding intelligence, four days before today’s tsunami of uncritical reporting in the British media, the British journalist David Rose explained in an article for Vanity Fair in December 2008 that, “according to a former senior CIA official, who read all the interrogation reports on KSM, ‘90 percent of it was total f*cking bullsh*t,’” and a former Pentagon analyst added, “KSM produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.”

The story of Abu Zubaydah, meanwhile, is even more illuminating, as he was not, as alleged, a high-ranking al-Qaeda member, but was, instead, the mentally troubled gatekeeper of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan that was closed down by the Taliban because its emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, refused to cooperate with Osama bin Laden.

As I have explained previously, Dan Coleman, the FBI’s senior expert on al-Qaeda, has explained how he and others at the FBI concluded not only that Zubaydah had severe mental problems — particularly because of a head injury that he had suffered in 1992 — but also that this led to him being regarded with particular suspicion by the al-Qaeda leadership. “They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone,” Coleman said. “You think they’re going to tell him anything?”

Moreover, Coleman’s analysis was, essentially, reinforced by a Justice Department official who told the Washington Post in 2009:

[Abu Zubaydah] “was not even an official member of al-Qaeda,” and was, instead, “a “kind of travel agent” for would-be jihadists. A former Justice Department official, who knows his case, explained, “He was the above-ground support. He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.” What happened, it transpired, was that “because his name often turned up in intelligence traffic linked to al-Qaeda transactions,” some within the intelligence community presumed that he was a significant figure, whereas the truth was that, although committed to the idea of jihad, he did not share Osama bin Laden’s aims, and “regarded the United States as an enemy principally because of its support of Israel.” The officials explained that he “had strained and limited relations with bin Laden and only vague knowledge before the Sept. 11 attacks that something was brewing.”

A more honest appraisal of the result of Abu Zubaydah’s torture would note that it began before George W. Bush received the Justice Department’s legally twisted approval for it, and that, as Ron Suskind explained in his 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine, so misplaced was the CIA’s belief in Zubaydah’s importance that when they subjected him to waterboarding and other forms of torture, he “confessed” to all manner of supposed plots — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty — and, as a result, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target … The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

Even more disturbingly, a far clearer example of how torture work in practice — to produce false confessions — is to be found in the story of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, conveniently ignored by George W. Bush and his courtiers in the mainstream media. Seized in December 2001, al-Libi was sent to Egypt by the CIA where, under torture — including, it seems, waterboarding — he falsely confessed that Saddam Hussein was advising al-Qaeda members on the use of chemical weapons. This claim made its way into Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations before the Iraq invasion in March 2003, and, as well as demonstrating how torture is only reliable for producing false intelligence, it also highlights something else that George W. Bush would like to have ignored while he brags about how, “Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior al-Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk that the country would be attacked.”

As Powell’s former Chief of Staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, explained to me last year, the truth is that, far from fearing another terrorist attack, the Bush administration had actually decided by December 2001 to shift its focus to Iraq, and was therefore using torture to try to justify the invasion of Iraq. Bush may not have been driving this policy, which, as he indicates in his book, was in the hands of Dick Cheney, but as Commander-in-Chief he bears the ultimate responsibility not only for authorizing torture, but also for what seems to be to be the treasonous policy of torturing “terror suspects” to justify the illegal invasion of a sovereign country, while lying to his countrymen that he was doing it to keep them safe.

As a result, all those media outlets queuing up to join the Times in sitting at Bush’s feet and uncritically reporting his lies, evasions and self-deceptions about torture ought to be ashamed. The former President is a war criminal, and not some kind of flawed hero returning from the wilderness to salvage his legacy.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.