'We Do Not Torture' and Other
By Frank Rich
The New York Times
Sunday 13 November 2005
If it weren't tragic it would be a New Yorker cartoon. The president of the United States, in the final stop of his forlorn Latin America tour last week, told the world, "We do not torture." Even as he spoke, the administration's flagrant embrace of torture was as hard to escape as publicity for Anderson Cooper.
The vice president, not satisfied that the C.I.A. had already been implicated in four detainee deaths, was busy lobbying Congress to give the agency a green light to commit torture in the future. Dana Priest of The Washington Post, having first uncovered secret C.I.A. prisons two years ago, was uncovering new "black sites" in Eastern Europe, where ghost detainees are subjected to unknown interrogation methods redolent of the region's Stalinist past. Before heading south, Mr. Bush had been doing his own bit for torture by threatening to cast the first veto of his presidency if Congress didn't scrap a spending bill amendment, written by John McCain and passed 90 to 9 by the Senate, banning the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of prisoners.
So when you watch the president stand there with a straight face and say, "We do not torture" - a full year and a half after the first photos from Abu Ghraib - you have to wonder how we arrived at this ludicrous moment. The answer is not complicated. When people in power get away with telling bigger and bigger lies, they naturally think they can keep getting away with it. And for a long time, Mr. Bush and his cronies did. Not anymore.
The fallout from the Scooter Libby indictment reveals that the administration's credibility, having passed the tipping point with Katrina, is flat-lining. For two weeks, the White House's talking-point monkeys in the press and Congress had been dismissing Patrick Fitzgerald's leak investigation as much ado about nothing except politics and as an exoneration of everyone except Mr. Libby. Now the American people have rendered their verdict: they're not buying it. Last week two major polls came up with the identical finding, that roughly 8 in 10 Americans regard the leak case as a serious matter. One of the polls (The Wall Street Journal/NBC News) also found that 57 percent of Americans believe that Mr. Bush deliberately misled the country into war in Iraq and that only 33 percent now find him "honest and straightforward," down from 50 percent in January.
The Bush loyalists' push to discredit the Libby indictment failed because Americans don't see it as a stand-alone scandal but as the petri dish for a wider culture of lying that becomes more visible every day. The last-ditch argument rolled out by Mr. Bush on Veterans Day in his latest stay-the-course speech - that Democrats, too, endorsed dead-wrong W.M.D. intelligence - is more of the same. Sure, many Democrats (and others) did believe that Saddam had an arsenal before the war, but only the White House hyped selective evidence for nuclear weapons, the most ominous of all of Iraq's supposed W.M.D.'s, to whip up public fears of an imminent doomsday.
There was also an entire other set of lies in the administration's prewar propaganda blitzkrieg that had nothing to do with W.M.D.'s, African uranium or the Wilsons. To get the country to redirect its finite resources to wage war against Saddam Hussein rather than keep its focus on the war against radical Islamic terrorists, the White House had to cook up not only the fiction that Iraq was about to attack us, but also the fiction that Iraq had already attacked us, on 9/11. Thanks to the Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who last weekend released a previously classified intelligence document, we now have conclusive evidence that the administration's disinformation campaign implying a link connecting Saddam to Al Qaeda and 9/11 was even more duplicitous and manipulative than its relentless flogging of nuclear Armageddon.
Senator Levin's smoking gun is a widely circulated Defense Intelligence Agency document from February 2002 that was probably seen by the National Security Council. It warned that a captured Qaeda terrorist in American custody was in all likelihood "intentionally misleading" interrogators when he claimed that Iraq had trained Qaeda members to use illicit weapons. The report also made the point that an Iraq-Qaeda collaboration was absurd on its face: "Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements." But just like any other evidence that disputed the administration's fictional story lines, this intelligence was promptly disregarded.
So much so that eight months later - in October 2002, as the White House was officially rolling out its new war and Congress was on the eve of authorizing it - Mr. Bush gave a major address in Cincinnati intermingling the usual mushroom clouds with information from that discredited, "intentionally misleading" Qaeda informant. "We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," he said. It was the most important, if hardly the only, example of repeated semantic sleights of hand that the administration used to conflate 9/11 with Iraq. Dick Cheney was fond of brandishing a nonexistent April 2001 "meeting" between Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague long after Czech and American intelligence analysts had dismissed it.
The power of these lies was considerable. In a CBS News/New York Times poll released on Sept. 25, 2001, 60 percent of Americans thought Osama bin Laden had been the culprit in the attacks of two weeks earlier, either alone or in league with unnamed "others" or with the Taliban; only 6 percent thought bin Laden had collaborated with Saddam; and only 2 percent thought Saddam had been the sole instigator. By the time we invaded Iraq in 2003, however, CBS News found that 53 percent believed Saddam had been "personally involved" in 9/11; other polls showed that a similar percentage of Americans had even convinced themselves that the hijackers were Iraqis.
There is still much more to learn about our government's duplicity in the run-up to the war, just as there is much more to learn about what has gone on since, whether with torture or billions of Iraq reconstruction dollars. That is why the White House and its allies, having failed to discredit the Fitzgerald investigation, are now so desperate to slow or block every other inquiry. Exhibit A is the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose Republican chairman, Pat Roberts, is proving a major farceur with his efforts to sidestep any serious investigation of White House prewar subterfuge. Last Sunday, the same day that newspapers reported Carl Levin's revelation about the "intentionally misleading" Qaeda informant, Senator Roberts could be found on "Face the Nation" saying he had found no evidence of "political manipulation or pressure" in the use of prewar intelligence.
His brazenness is not anomalous. After more than two years of looking into the forged documents used by the White House to help support its bogus claims of Saddam's Niger uranium, the F.B.I. ended its investigation without resolving the identity of the forgers. Last week, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reported that an investigation into the November 2003 death of an Abu Ghraib detainee, labeled a homicide by the U.S. government, has been, in the words of a lawyer familiar with the case, "lying kind of fallow." The Wall Street Journal similarly reported that 17 months after Condoleezza Rice promised a full investigation into Ahmad Chalabi's alleged leaking of American intelligence to Iran, F.B.I. investigators had yet to interview Mr. Chalabi - who was being welcomed in Washington last week as an honored guest by none other than Ms. Rice.
The Times, meanwhile, discovered that Mr. Libby had set up a legal defense fund to be underwritten by donors who don't have to be publicly disclosed but who may well have a vested interest in the direction of his defense. It's all too eerily reminiscent of the secret fund set up by Richard Nixon's personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, to pay the legal fees of Watergate defendants.
There's so much to stonewall at the White House that last week Scott McClellan was reduced to beating up on the octogenarian Helen Thomas. "You don't want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen," he said, "and I'm going to tell them the facts." Coming from the press secretary who vowed that neither Mr. Libby nor Karl Rove had any involvement in the C.I.A. leak, this scene was almost as funny as his boss's "We do not torture" charade.
Not that it matters now. The facts the American people are listening to at this point come not from an administration that they no longer find credible, but from the far more reality-based theater of war. The Qaeda suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman on 11/9, like the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London before them, speak louder than anything else of the price we are paying for the lies that diverted us from the war against the suicide bombers of 9/11 to the war in Iraq.