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Cheney May Balk at Torture Probe

By Jason Leopold
August 31, 2009

Dick Cheney says Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to have a federal prosecutor examine one dozen or so cases of torture that U.S. interrogators allegedly inflicted on suspected terrorists “offends the hell out of me” and may not merit the former Vice President’s cooperation.

In a defiant half-hour interview on Fox News, Cheney launched a blistering attack on the Obama administration calling Holder’s decision “an outrageous political act” and warned that it “will do great damage, long-term, to our capacity to be able to have people take on difficult jobs, make difficult decisions, without having to worry about what the next administration is going to say."

As for Cheney’s willingness to be interviewed as part of the probe, he said, “It will depend on the circumstances and what I think their activities are really involved in.”

Last week, Holder instructed Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham to undertake a “preliminary” inquiry into whether some interrogators exceeded the parameters that the Bush administration placed on the treatment of “war on terror” detainees. With Cheney’s strong support, interrogators were permitted to engage in a variety of torture techniques, including the drowning sensation of waterboarding, but some interrogators allegedly engaged in practices outside those guidelines.

“I’m very proud of what we did in terms of defending the nation for the last eight years successfully,” Cheney said in the Fox News interview broadcast Sunday. “And, you know, it won’t take a prosecutor to find out what I think. I’ve already expressed those views rather forthrightly.”

Cheney said the torture investigation would undercut CIA efforts to uncover terrorist threats, a position that has been challenged by veteran intelligence officials and experienced interrogators.

Jack Cloonan, a former FBI security and counterterrorism expert who was assigned to the agency’s elite Bin Laden Unit, said in an interview that Cheney and Republican lawmakers were sounding "false alarms" in an effort to keep serious crimes from being exposed.

“To suggest [intelligence gathering] will come to a screeching halt if there were an investigation is not accurate," Cloonan said.

Col. Steve Kleinman, a career military intelligence officer who is recognized as one of the Defense Department’s most effective interrogators, also disagreed with Cheney.

“I’m a professional interrogator, I have 25 years of experience in this and I don’t have any concern whatsoever that an investigation into how we conducted ourselves since 9/11 would in any way undermine our ability to continue gathering intelligence,” Kleinman said.

And Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said in an interview that members of the intelligence community whom he has spoken to in recent weeks favor a serious investigation.

“My conversations with agency members — retired and active — reveals the opposite” of what Cheney has stated about the alleged damage to morale from an investigation, Wilkerson said.

“They want the dirty laundry aired and the people responsible punished,” Wilkerson said. “One or two are worried about countries such as Poland and Morocco where secret prisons were located and [torture was] condoned, but not so much for future intelligence reasons as for what may happen to the leaders who condoned the prisons now that the citizens of those countries have been made aware.

“It is illogical, if not idiotic, to make the claim...that the CIA’s morale will be damaged by investigations aimed at establishing who did what to whom and perhaps, achieving some accountability. The overwhelming majority of the CIA had nothing to do with torture and, most likely would welcome its being brought to light and dealt with.

“In short, they do not like being tarred with a brush that only should touch less than one percent of the agency. Just as many combat soldiers and Marines in the field objected to the sort of practices we saw highlighted in 2004 at Abu Ghraib, many CIA members would object to torture too.”

But Wilkerson said he thinks the investigation should go further, to include Cheney, the Vice President’s former counsel David Addington, Justice Department lawyers who wrote the legal opinions authorizing torture, as well as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who spread some of the techniques to prisons run by the U.S. military, and other top Bush administration officials who sanctioned the abuse.

“I do not believe we have the political will or skill to punish the higher-ups,” Wilkerson said. “So because of that reality I don’t think any of the senior people will be held accountable. I do believe that they should be however.”

Cheney's interview left the impression that the former Vice President didn’t object to lawbreaking as long as the ends justified the means. He indicated he had no problem with some CIA interrogators going beyond the Justice Department’s prescribed limits.

Last week, a May 2004 report  prepared by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson on the Bush administration’s detention and torture program said interrogators staged mock executions, revved a power drill and brandished a revolver during interrogations and threatened to kill the family of self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and rape the wife of another high-value detainee, Abd Al-Rahim Al Nashiri.

Threatening prisoners in custody of the U.S. government with imminent death is a violation of the Convention Against Torture.

But Cheney was unmoved. He said the fact that allegations of crimes contained in Helgerson’s report had already been reviewed by career prosecutors five years ago, who concluded that certain torture cases weren’t prosecutable, was evidence the allegations of criminal behavior had no merit.

Cheney added that President Barack Obama could have easily thwarted the probe if he wanted to.

“We had the President of the United States, President Obama, tell us a few months ago there wouldn't be any investigation like this, that there would not be any look-back at CIA personnel who were carrying out the policies of the prior administration,” Cheney said. “Now they get a little heat from the left wing of the Democratic Party, and they're reversing course on that.

“The President is the chief law enforcement officer in the administration. He’s now saying, well, this isn’t anything that he’s got anything to do with. He’s up on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, and his Attorney General is going back and doing something that the President said some months ago they wouldn’t do.

“I think if you look at the Constitution, the President of the United States is the chief law enforcement officer in the land. The Attorney General's a statutory officer. He's a member of the cabinet. The President's the one who bears this responsibility.

“And for him to say, 'gee, I didn't have anything to do with it,' especially after he sat in the Oval Office and said this wouldn't happen, then Holder decides he's going to do it.”

In fact, Obama never said there wouldn’t be an investigation into torture. What he said, and what his political appointees have echoed to the dismay of civil liberties groups and some Democrats, is that he had hoped to “look forward” not “backwards” and that those CIA interrogators “who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.”

Also, contrary to Cheney’s assertions, most recent presidential administrations have sought to maintain a separation between the White House and the Justice Department’s handling of criminal cases, especially limiting contact on politically sensitive investigations.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, however, many of those walls were broken down as evidenced by the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006, after some were deemed not “loyal Bushies” for balking at bringing criminal charges against Democrats and allied organizations. Bush’s White House also played a key behind-the-scenes role in creating legal justifications for the torturing of terror suspects.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that Cheney's comments do not come as a surprise.

"Frankly," Kerry said, Cheney has shown "a disrespect for the Constitution, for sharing of information with Congress, respect for the law, and I’m not surprised that he is upset about this.”

During the Fox interview, Cheney continued to misrepresent the substance of Helgerson’s CIA report, which found that so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “EITs” did not prevent any imminent terrorist attacks, as Cheney had long claimed. Other documents released last week also fell short of proving Cheney’s claim that the brutal interrogations produced actionable intelligence.

Helgerson said  the CIA's limited data did not permit "definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods," but he expressed concern that the brutal practices could have harmful repercussions by damaging the U.S. image as an advocate of human rights.

Matthew Alexander, the senior interrogator for the  task force in Iraq that tracked down al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab  al-Zarqawi in 2006, said he believes what Cheney sanctioned “caused the deaths of some U.S. military personnel.” [Matthew Alexander is a pseudonym used to protect the interrogator’s identity and security.]

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned the “timing of” the Justice Department's probe as “not very good.” Feinstein’s committee has been conducting its own “review” about the effectiveness of the torture program and whether it resulted in actionable intelligence. Her committee is expected to issue a report later this year.

“Candidly, I wish that the Attorney General had waited,” Feinstein said. “Every day, something kind of dribbles out into the public arena. Very often it has mistakes. Very often it’s half a story. I think we need to get the whole story together and tell it in an appropriate way.

“A lot of things are being said — ‘Well, you know, torturing people is something that we did, but on the other hand, it produced all kinds of incredible information.' It did produce some information, but there is a great discrepancy, and I think a good deal of error out there in what people are saying it did produce.”

Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at

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