*'We Do Not Torture' and Other Funny Stories*
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.
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.