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Congressional Hearings Shed New Light on Government’s Endorsement of Torture; Maj. Gen. Taguba Accuses Bush Administration of War Crimes

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On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held an eight-hour hearing that exposed the role of top Bush administration officials in authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques. Meanwhile, Retired Major General Antonio Taguba, the Army general who first investigated the abuse at Abu Ghraib, has accused the Bush administration of committing war crimes. “The commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture,” Taguba said. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Retired General Antonio Taguba, who led the US Army’s investigation into the Abu Ghraib abuses, has accused the Bush administration of “a systematic regime of torture” and war crimes. Taguba’s accusations appear in the preface to a new report released by Physicians for Human Rights. The report uses medical evidence to confirm first-hand accounts of eleven former prisoners who endured torture by US personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

Taguba writes, “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.”

AMY GOODMAN: The report was published in the midst of two days of congressional hearings on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held an eight-hour hearing that exposed the role of top Bush administration officials in authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques. The committee released a series of previously classified documents detailing how the Pentagon and the CIA transformed the military’s SERE resistance training program into a blueprint for interrogating terrorist suspects. Committee Chair Senator Carl Levin explained the timeline of implementing the SERE, or Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, techniques and the role of military psychologists in devising these routines.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: On October 2, 2002, a week after John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel, visited Gitmo, a second senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, who was chief counsel to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, went to Guantanamo, attended a meeting of Gitmo staff and discussed a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. That memo had been drafted by a psychologist and psychiatrist from Gitmo, who a couple of weeks earlier had attended that training given at Fort Bragg by instructors by the SERE school.

    While the training — excuse me, while the memo remains classified, minutes from the meeting where it was discussed are not. Those minutes clearly show that the focus of the discussion was aggressive techniques for use against detainees.

    When the Gitmo chief of staff suggested at the meeting that Gitmo “can’t do sleep deprivation,” Lieutenant Colonel Beaver, Gitmo’s senior lawyer, responded, “Yes, we can — with approval.” Lieutenant Beaver added that Gitmo, quote, “may need to curb the harsher operations while the International Committee of the Red Cross is around.”

    Mr. Fredman, the senior CIA lawyer, suggested that it’s, quote, “very effective to identify detainee phobias and to use them” and described for the group the so-called “wet towel” technique, which we know as waterboarding. Mr. Fredman said, quote, “It can feel like you’re drowning. The lymphatic system will react as if you’re suffocating, but your body will not cease to function,” close-quote.

    And Mr. Fredman presented the following disturbing perspective of our legal obligations under our anti-torture laws, saying, quote, “It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

    “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.” How on earth did we get to the point where a senior US government lawyer would say that whether or not an interrogation technique is torture is, quote, “subject to perception” and that if, quote, “the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong”? The Gitmo senior JAG officer Lieutenant Colonel Beaver’s response was: “We will need documentation to protect us.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Pentagon’s former general counsel William Haynes was repeatedly questioned at Tuesday’s hearing about his role in authorizing the interrogation techniques. During two hours of testimony, Haynes responded to dozens of questions by saying he could not recall or remember details about the process of approving the interrogation techniques. Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island blasted Haynes’s role in authorizing torture.

    SEN. JACK REED: You said the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply, and they honestly ask, “What does apply?” And the only thing you sent them was: these techniques apply — no conditions, nothing. So don’t go around with this attitude of you’re protecting the integrity of the military. You degraded the integrity of the United States military.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A major McClatchy newspaper series investigating the detention of terrorist suspects names Haynes as one of a group of five lawyers at the White House, Pentagon and Justice Department who called themselves the “War Council” and reinterpreted US and international laws about accountability and the treatment of prisoners. Other members of the War Council included Vice President Cheney’s former legal adviser and current chief of staff, David Addington; former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo; and former deputy to Gonzales, Timothy Flanigan.

Despite the new revelations of systematic prisoner abuse sanctioned at the highest level of government, White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto insisted Tuesday that the administration does not abuse detainees.

    TONY FRATTO: I can tell you it’s always been the policy of this government to treat these detainees humanely and in line with the laws and our legal obligations.

    REPORTER: Along those lines, another memo came out suggesting that a senior CIA lawyer, while you were debating this in 2002, said the only short test for torture is if a detainee dies or not and said, quote, “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.” Does that fit into the guidelines —-

    TONY FRATTO: I don’t -— I don’t know who that is or who that came from. I’m telling you that abuse of detainees has never been, is not, and will never be the policy of this government.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour on torture. We begin with Mark Benjamin, national correspondent for He covered the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. He joins us from Washington, D.C.

Welcome, Mark, to Democracy Now!

MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the revelations that have come out over these two days of hearings from the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yes. I think particularly the hearing in the Senate, for me — and I’ve been covering Washington for over a decade — was one of the most incredible hearings I think I’ve ever been to. And the reason why, you had a quote from General Taguba in the lead up to this discussion that it was patently clear that there was an organized effort to torture and that it was against the law, and the only question left is whether anyone will be prosecuted. I have to say — it’s sort of amazing to say this, but I think he’s right.

What became painfully clear, I think, in the Senate hearing were two things. One is that soon after 9/11 — and there was testimony and documents showing this — officials from Washington, not interrogators out there in the field, were calling — you mentioned the military SERE school — officials from Washington were calling SERE school — we’re talking about CIA officials — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We have just lost that feed for a minute, but he’s back. Go ahead, Mark. Continue.

MARK BENJAMIN: OK. What the hearing showed in the Senate was that officials from Washington, from the CIA, from the Department of Defense, were calling the military SERE school, asking for how we train at SERE school, the Search, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school, how we train elite soldiers at SERE school and whether those techniques could be reverse-engineered into interrogation techniques.

Now, that’s important, and the reason why it’s important is because at SERE school, what we do with the elite soldiers is we — in some cases, they go through waterboarding, they go through sensory deprivation, hooding, forced nudity, humiliation, slapping, that kind of stuff — the same things you saw at Abu Ghraib. That school is designed to train soldiers in case they are captured by an enemy who violates the Geneva Conventions. The reason why that’s important is because at that time, violating Geneva Conventions was against the law. So you have high-level officials from Washington asking about techniques that are designed to help people in case they’re tortured by somebody who violates the Geneva Conventions. So that was one thing that came out in the hearing that was just incredibly shocking.

The other thing that came out that I thought was sort of amazing was that as the Pentagon, for example, started putting together its first formal protocols of these — using these techniques to interrogate people — in other words, the first memos from Secretary Rumsfeld in late 2002 saying this is what we’re going to do to people, we’re going to do hooding, we’re going to do forced nudity, so on and so forth, sensory deprivation — before that memo was even signed, all of the branches of the military — the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force and Army — all wrote memos, before that was even signed, saying this looks like a problem, because it’s against the law. And I’ve just never seen that or never heard that. And what it suggests, obviously, is that high-level — very, very high-level people in the government knew or should have known that what they were doing was against the law. It was sort of an amazing, amazing hearing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, about the role of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Myers, in terms of his response to the criticism he was getting from down the ranks and how he dealt with the Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on this issue?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yeah, that was also an amazing part of the hearing. What happened was, in late 2002, while the military was preparing to formally embrace these techniques, in memos saying this is how we’re going to interrogate people at Guantanamo and elsewhere, as I said, the military services were saying, “Don’t do this. It’s a bad idea. It won’t work, and it’s against the law.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, has his own attorney, Admiral Dalton, and Admiral Dalton began a legal review, said, “Wait a minute. Let’s do a legal review. The services are having a problem,” and started a formal legal review of this process. Because of a request from Jim Haynes, who’s the Department of Defense general counsel, worked directly for Rumsfeld — Haynes went to Dalton and said, “Stop the review” — in other words, put a halt to it, muzzle the services. And what was sort of amazing, which came out in the hearing, is Richard Myers agreed and told his own lawyer, Admiral Dalton, to stop the review. And, you know, it looked pretty awful in the hearing, because you could certainly make an argument that if Richard Myers hadn’t done that, maybe this all wouldn’t have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. We’re also going to be joined by the head of the NYU Center for Torture Survivors, victims of torture, just come out with a remarkable report that Major General Taguba introduced, called “Broken Laws, Broken Lives.” We’re also going to be talking with the editor at McClatchy newspapers about their eight-month investigation interviewing more than sixty former prisoners, prisoners of the US, and what happened to them. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: At Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora blasted the Bush administration’s abusive detention practices.

    ALBERTO MORA: To use so-called “harsh” interrogation techniques during the war on terror was a mistake of massive proportions. It damaged and continues to damage our nation. This policy, which may be aptly a “policy of cruelty,” violated our founding values, our constitutional system and the fabric of our laws, our overarching foreign policy interests and our national security. The net effect of this policy of cruelty has been to weaken our defenses, not to strengthen them.

    Before examining the damage, it may be useful to draw some basic legal distinctions. The choice of the adjectives “harsh” or “enhanced” to describe these interrogation techniques is euphemistic and misleading. The legally correct adjective is “cruel.” Many of the counter-resistance techniques authorized for use at Guantanamo in December 2002 constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that could, depending on their application, easily rise to the level of torture.

    Many Americans are unaware that there is a legal distinction between cruelty and torture, cruelty being the less severe level of abuse. This has tended to obscure important elements of the interrogation debate. For example, the public may be largely unaware that the government could evasively, if truthfully, claim, and did claim, that it was not “torturing,” even as it was simultaneously applying cruelly. Yet Americans should know that there is little or no moral distinction between cruelty and torture, for cruelty can be as effective as torture in savaging human flesh and spirit and in violating human dignity. Our efforts should be focused not merely on banning torture, but on banning cruelty.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora, blasting the Bush administration. We turn to Mark Benjamin, who is with The significance of Mora’s statement?

MARK BENJAMIN: I think it’s very significant, and I think we’re going to hear more and more very smart attorneys looking at the memos that came out that we were talking about from the Senate hearing, which are incredible, which show high-level Bush administration officials using techniques that were clearly, many military officials thought were, illegal, and developing them into interrogation protocol.

And I just wanted to note that Mora is a fascinating figure in this whole story. Mora is one of the people — he was general counsel of the Navy, and in late 2002, as Secretary Rumsfeld, at least on the military side, was implementing these interrogation protocols, which a lot of attorneys think are illegal, he literally was threatening Rumsfeld’s counsel Jim Haynes to rescind that order and in fact essentially threatened to go public. He succeeded in getting at least the paper pulled back. Rumsfeld did rescind it. But by that time, the memo had already been sent to Afghanistan and on to Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the inability of Haynes to recall, so many of the questions he was asked about, the specifics? What was the reaction to his faulty memory?

MARK BENJAMIN: I think the lawmakers were incredulous. I don’t think they believe him. I think that they believe he was trying not to incriminate himself. A lot of the people around Haynes during that period of time remember him aggressively pursuing this agenda on behalf of his boss. And by “this agenda,” I mean taking these tactics where we train, you know, soldiers to withstand an interrogation by whoever who would violate the Geneva Conventions and turn that into our own interrogation tactics. As I mentioned before, one of the things he did, for example, was he told the military to stop reviewing this decision, because the military — as I said, the services had real problems with it, because they thought it would be ineffective and they thought it would be illegal.

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