Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Bush Administration's Most Despicable Act

By Joe Klein

"This is not the America I know," President George W. Bush said after the first, horrifying pictures of U.S. troops torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in April 2004. The President was not telling the truth. "This" was the America he had authorized on Feb. 7, 2002, when he signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention — the one regarding the treatment of enemy prisoners taken in wartime — did not apply to members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. That signature led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. It was his single most callous and despicable act. It stands at the heart of the national embarrassment that was his presidency.

The details of the torture that Bush authorized have been dribbling out over the years in books like Jane Mayer's excellent The Dark Side. But the most definitive official account was released by the Senate Armed Services Committee just before Christmas. Much of the committee's report remains secret, but a 19-page executive summary was published, and it is infuriating. The story begins with an obscure military training program called Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE), in which various forms of torture are simulated to prepare U.S. special-ops personnel for the sorts of treatment they might receive if they're taken prisoner. Incredibly, the Bush Administration decided to have SERE trainers instruct its interrogation teams on how to torture prisoners. (Read "Shell-Shocked at Abu Ghraib?")

It should be noted that there was, and is, no evidence that these techniques actually work. Experienced military and FBI interrogators believe that torture leads, more often than not, to fabricated confessions. Patient, persistent questioning using subtle psychological carrots and sticks is the surest way to get actionable information. But prisoners held by the U.S. were tortured — first at Guantánamo Bay and later in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Armed Services Committee report details the techniques used on one prisoner: "Military working dogs had been used against [Mohammed al-] Khatani. He had also been deprived of adequate sleep for weeks on end, stripped naked, subjected to loud music, and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks."

Since we live in an advanced Western civilization, there needs to be legal justification when we torture people, and the Bush Administration proudly produced it. Memos authorizing the use of "enhanced" techniques were written in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Council. Vice President Dick Cheney and his nefarious aide, David Addington, had a hand in the process. The memos were approved by Bush's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales. A memo listing specific interrogation techniques that could be used to torture prisoners like Mohammed al-Khatani was passed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He signed it on Dec. 2, 2002, although he seemed a bit disappointed by the lack of rigor when it came to stress positions: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day," he noted. "Why is standing limited to four hours?"

It would be interesting, just for the fun and justice of it, to subject Rumsfeld to four hours in a stress position — standing stock still with his arms extended, naked, in a cold room after maybe two hours' sleep. But that's not going to happen. Indeed, it seems probable that nothing much is going to happen to the Bush Administration officials who perpetrated what many legal scholars consider to be war crimes. "I would say that there's some theoretical exposure here" to a war-crimes indictment in U.S. federal court, says Gene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. "But I don't think there's much public appetite for that sort of action." There is, I'm told, absolutely no interest on the part of the incoming Obama Administration to pursue indictments against its predecessors. "We're focused on the future," said one of the President-elect's legal advisers. Fidell and others say it is possible, though highly unlikely, that Bush et al. could be arrested overseas — one imagines the Vice President pinched midstream on a fly-fishing trip to Norway — just as Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, was indicted in Spain and arrested in London for his crimes.

If Barack Obama really wanted to be cagey, he could pardon Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for the possible commission of war crimes. Then they'd have to live with official acknowledgment of their ignominy in perpetuity. More likely, Obama will simply make sure — through his excellent team of legal appointees — that no such behavior happens again. Still, there should be some official acknowledgment by the U.S. government that the Bush Administration's policies were reprehensible, and quite possibly illegal, and that the U.S. is no longer in the torture business. If Obama doesn't want to make that statement, perhaps we could do it in the form of a Bush Memorial in Washington: a statue of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner in cruciform stress position — the real Bush legacy.

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Bush admits to uncertainty about future as private citizen

At the White House, President George W. Bush gives an interview with reporters from Texas news organizations, from left, Rick Dunham, Dave Montgomery of the Star-Telegram, Gary Martin and Ken Herman.   White House/Eric Draper
White House/Eric Draper
At the White House, President George W. Bush gives an interview with reporters from Texas news organizations, from left, Rick Dunham, Dave Montgomery of the Star-Telegram, Gary Martin and Ken Herman. White House/Eric Draper

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks before he puts an "ex-" in front of his title and relinquishes the White House to Barack Obama, President George W. Bush acknowledges feeling a bit uncertain as he looks toward life as a private citizen back in Texas.

"At 8 a.m., the CIA is in here giving me a briefing on world events," the 43rd president said in the Oval Office on Friday. "I don’t know what it’s going to be like to wake up on the morning of the 21st of January and not have somebody come here and say, 'This is the way the world looks today, Mr. President.’ "

In an interview with four Texas news organizations, including the Star-Telegram, the former Texas governor reflected on his often-turbulent eight years as president and contemplated the more tranquil life that awaits him and first lady Laura Bush after his Democratic successor takes office Jan. 20.

The Bushes will move into a $2 million, 8,500-square-foot home in Dallas that the first lady selected and that Bush has yet to see. "They say it’s a beauty," Bush joked.

Their ranch in Crawford, where the president conducted working vacations, will serve as a second home, though Bush said he and Laura will spend most of their time in Dallas.

Bush said he plans to give speeches and write his memoirs, a book that he said will provide insight into his presidential decision-making. He also plans to devote much of his attention to his future presidential library at Southern Methodist University.

"The main thing I’ve got to be anxious about is whether or not I’m going to find enough to keep this Type A personality from getting restless," he said.

Bush says that after more than 14 years in public service, including his stint as governor and eight years in what he called the White House "bubble," he may at last be free to stroll around the neighborhood or shop for groceries. But even that will take some adjustment.

"Initially, it’s going to be a surprise for people to see ex-President Bush walking around the grocery store," Bush said. "Hopefully, after a while, the new will wear off."

One thing he says he did not expect and will not miss about Washington is its harsh political rhetoric and "name-calling." He also called on Republicans to refrain from strident attacks on Obama as he assumes the presidency.

Bush seemed relaxed and joked with reporters as he talked about his "retirement." He recalled his first impressions of the White House and the anticipation of becoming president after his contested victory over Al Gore in 2000.

"I remember heading up to Washington to get sworn in," he said. "I was ready to do the job, but you never really know what it’s like to be president until you actually step in the Oval Office as the president."

Bush’s popularity soared after 9-11.

But over the years, his approval ratings plummeted as the nation dealt with two wars and an economic downturn. He will leave office as one of modern history’s most unpopular presidents.

Citing accomplishments

Nevertheless, the outgoing Republican president said he believes that his record includes numerous successes, including tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind legislation to strengthen public schools and Medicaid reform. He also cited a record 52 uninterrupted months of job creation before the economy weakened.

"We’ll let history be the judge, but I . . . will tell you this: I have a great sense of accomplishment, and I am going home with my head held high."

Bush said the seeds of the economic crisis "started before my watch," and he defended billions of dollars in government bailouts as a bold move that has prevented a further economic meltdown.

Measures his administration implemented after 9-11 have helped prevent another terrorist attack against the United States, Bush said. The president acknowledged that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 attacks, remains at large but predicted that he will be caught and brought to justice.

Looking back, Bush also acknowledged mistakes, including the "Mission Accomplished" banner that gave the false impression that the Iraqi insurgency had ended.

He also regrets the failure of his immigration overhaul initiative and said he might have had a better chance at getting the bill passed if he had submitted it to Congress just after his 2004 re-election, when his political capital was at its peak.

Bush said he will miss the creature comforts of White House life, the flights on Air Force One and the friendships he and the first lady made with their staff. Perhaps most of all, he said, he will miss "the men and women in uniform" whom he came to know while commander in chief.

"I have seen them in the battlefield. I have seen them in hospitals. I have met with the families of the fallen . . . and I am in awe of the men and women who serve," he said.

With Bush’s return to his home state, Texas will become home to father and son ex-presidents, apparently a historical first. Former President George H.W. Bush lives in Houston and has a presidential library at Texas A&M.

Father-son rapport

The younger Bush said he reached out to his father while president — but not for official advice. "When I called him, it was either to hear him say, 'I love you, son,’ or for me to say: 'Hey, Dad, don’t worry about it. I’m doing fine.’ "

His father also told him what he should expect after leaving office.

"He was talking about how there will be a lot of interest initially about what his life was like after the presidency and then you just fade out," Bush said. "That’s fine with me. The faster the fade, the better."

David Montgomery covered President George W. Bush as Star-Telegram Washington bureau chief and has just returned to Texas as Austin bureau chief.

DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294

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House impeaches Blagojevich

SPRINGFIELD---In a historic vote, the Illinois House has impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich, directing the Senate to put the state's 40th chief executive on trial with the goal of removing him from office.

The vote by the House was 114-1 with one member voting "present." It marks the first time in the state's 190-year history that a governor has been impeached, despite Illinois' longstanding reputation for political corruption.

Rep. Milt Patterson (D-Chicago) was the lone vote against impeachment. The "present" vote was cast by Rep. Elga Jefferies (D-Chicago).

A spokesman for the governor said he won't resign.

(Check Clout Street for updates)

The actions of the House--approving an article of impeachment maintaining Blagojevich had committed abuses of power--represents the equivalent of an indictment.

The impeachment resolution covering Blagojevich's actions "show a public servant who has betrayed his oath of office, who has betrayed the public trust, who is not fit to govern the state of Illinois," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the Chicago Democrat who headed a special panel that recommended Blagojevich's impeachment a day earlier.

Next week, when the Senate convenes, it will begin the process of setting up a trial of the governor in which each of the 59 state senators act as judge and jurors.

A total of 40 senators are needed to convict Blagojevich, which would remove the governor from office and make Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn the state's new chief executive. A trial is expected to take at least three weeks.

House members had expressed hopes that the impeachment would encourage Blagojevich to resign from office to avoid the Senate trial. But Blagojevich has resisted calls for his resignation following his Dec. 9 arrest at his North Side home on federal corruption charges, including allegations he sought to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

On Thursday, after the House investigation's panel recommended Blagojevich's impeachment, the governor said he looked forward to a trial in the Senate, presided over by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, and "believes the outcome will be much different" from the House action.

--Ray Long and Rick Pearson

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