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Cheney Admits Detainee-Abuse Role

By Jason Leopold
December 16, 2008

Vice President Dick Cheney said for the first time Monday that he helped get the “process cleared” for the brutal interrogation program of suspected terrorists.

In an interview with ABC News, Cheney was matter-of-fact and unapologetic about the harsh techniques used against the detainees — including waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning considered torture since the days of the Inquisition.

“I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the [Central Intelligence] Agency, in effect, came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do,” Cheney said. “And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.”

Cheney made his comment in response to a question about whether he personally approved the harsh tactics used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

"There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al-Qaeda came from that one source," Cheney said. "So, it's been a remarkably successful effort; I think the results speak for themselves."

Cheney’s nonchalant response to the questions about torture was reminiscent of his casual comment to a conservative radio host in October 2006 when Cheney said the decision to waterboard suspected terrorists was a “no-brainer.”

Thousands of pages of documents released publicly since that interview would appear to show that methods used against detainees constituted cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in violation of anti-torture statutes and international treaties signed and ratified by the United States.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led the investigation of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, has said “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

In another interview Monday with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, Cheney said the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “has been very well run.”

“I think if you look at it from the perspective of the requirements we had, once you go out and capture a bunch of terrorists, as we did in Afghanistan and elsewhere, then you’ve got to have some place to put them,” Cheney said.

Defending the Iraq War

In the ABC interview, Cheney also defended the decision to invade Iraq, arguing that even though Iraq lacked the WMD stockpiles that Cheney and other administration officials had claimed it had, the invasion was justified by Iraq’s potential to build such weapons in the future.

“I think –as I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq – what they got wrong was that there weren't any stockpiles,” Cheney said. “What we found in the after-action reports, after the intelligence report was done and then various special groups went and looked at the intelligence and what its validity was. What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stocks. They also found that he had every intention of resuming production once the international sanctions were lifted. …

“This was a bad actor and the country's better off, the world's better off, with Saddam gone, and I think we made the right decision, in spite of the fact that the original NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] was off in some of its major judgments.”

However, an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Bush and Cheney didn’t simply buy into faulty intelligence but knowingly misled Congress and the public about the threat that Iraq posed to the United States in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion.

“Before taking the country to war, this administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence,” said committee chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-West Virginia, who released a report on prewar Iraq intelligence last June.

The Senate report was the first U.S. government document to state that Bush and Cheney knowingly made false allegations about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was overthrown in April 2003 and executed in December 2006.

“There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence. But there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate," Rockefeller said.

The Senate report singled out erroneous statements that Cheney made during the run-up to war that the Vice President knew were not supported by the available intelligence, such as allegations that Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001.

In essence, the Senate report confirmed British intelligence assertions, which surfaced in a document widely known as the Downing Street Memo, that the facts about the threat posed by Iraq were being “fixed” around the Bush administration's desire to invade Iraq.

Principals Committee

Cheney’s unapologetic comments to ABC News were made less than a week after a bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report found that the Vice President was part of a group – also including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – responsible for the abuse of detainees that took place at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

As part of that investigation, Rice admitted that – beginning in 2002 as Bush’s national security adviser – she led high-level discussions with other senior Bush administration officials about subjecting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists to the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding. [See’s “Torture Trail Seen Starting with Bush.”]

Those meetings were first confirmed last April when President Bush told an ABC News reporter that he approved meetings of the NSC’s Principals Committee to discuss specific interrogation techniques the CIA could use against detainees. The Principals Committee included Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft as well as Cheney and Rice.

Earlier this year, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers wrote to Attorney General Michael Mukasey requesting he appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Bush and senior members of his Cabinet committed war crimes by authorizing CIA and military interrogators to use harsh tactics against detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq.

That request followed an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross into interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay, which “documented several instances of acts of torture against detainees, including soaking a prisoner’s hand in alcohol and lighting it on fire, subjecting a prisoner to sexual abuse and forcing a prisoner to eat a baseball.”

But Cheney continues to dismiss such criticism, still insisting that the United States doesn’t torture and that the administration broke no other laws in conducting the “war on terror.”

"I think those who allege that we've been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don't know what they're talking about,” Cheney told ABC News.

Mukasey has refused to open a war-crimes investigation, although a special counsel – Connecticut’s assistant attorney general John Durham, is investigating the CIA’s destruction of videotapes taken of the waterboarding of Mohammad and other detainees.

How President-elect Barack Obama handles evidence of the Bush administration’s use of torture will represent one of the first tests of his administration.

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose organization has represented Guantanamo detainees, said last week it is imperative that Obama authorize his Attorney General to launch a criminal investigation into Cheney and others in the White House.

“One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President should be to instruct his Attorney General to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush administration officials who gave the green light to torture,” Ratner said in a column published in the magazine The Progressive.

Ratner said anything less than a full-scale criminal investigation – a substitute like a Truth Commission assigned simply to ascertain the facts – would be unacceptable.

“If Obama and [Attorney General-designate Eric] Holder want to adhere to our Constitution and uphold our highest values, they must pursue those in the Bush administration who violated that Constitution, broke our laws, and tarnished our values,” Ratner wrote. “To simply let those officials walk off the stage sends a message of impunity that will only encourage future law breaking. The message that we need to send is that they will be held accountable.

“This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed.”

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at

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