On August 30, when In My Time, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s self-serving autobiography was published, the timing was pernicious. Cheney knows by now that every time he opens his mouth to endorse torture or to defend Guantánamo, the networks welcome him, and newspapers lavish column inches on his opinions, even though astute editors and programmers must realize that, far from being an innocuous elder statesman defending the “war on terror” as a robust response to the 9/11 attacks, Cheney has an ulterior motive: to keep at bay those who are aware that he and other Bush administration officials were responsible for authorizing the use of torture by U.S. forces, and that torture is a crime in the United States.
As a result, Cheney knew that, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that launched the “war on terror” he is still so concerned to defend, his voice would be echoing in the ears of millions of his countrymen, helping to disguise a bitter truth: that, following the 9/11 attacks, he was largely responsible for the abomination that is Guantánamo and for the torture to which prisoners were subjected, from Abu Ghraib to Bagram to Guantánamo and the “black sites” that littered the world.
While Cheney has been largely successful in claiming that the use of torture was helpful, despite a lack of evidence that that was the case, what strikes me as even more alarming is that many Americans are still unaware of the extent to which the torture for which Cheney was such a cheerleader did not keep them safe from terrorist attacks, but actually was the source of a lie that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Cheney is a long-time believer in unfettered executive power and his fingerprints are all over the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks, along with those of his legal counsel, David Addington. The two men had met during the Iran-Contra scandal, when they defended Ronald Reagan on the basis that the president should be beyond criticism; and it was Cheney and Addington who were behind a military order issued by George W. Bush on November 13, 2001, that established the president’s right to hold those he regarded as terrorists as a new type of prisoner (who later became the infamous “enemy combatants”) and, if he wished, to prosecute them in trials by military commission, which were designed to secure easy convictions, and to use evidence derived from the use of torture.
It was Addington, no doubt after consultation with Cheney, who wrote the memo to President Bush on January 25, 2002, signed by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, that claimed that the Geneva Conventions contained “quaint” provisions, and that the circumstances in which the “war on terror” was being waged rendered “obsolete” the Conventions’ “strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.” The memo advised the president to discard the Geneva Conventions with respect to the prisoners at Guantánamo, which had opened two weeks earlier.
The purpose was to allow coercive interrogations and even the use of torture, and that became official policy on August 1, 2002, when another of Cheney’s colleagues, John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is supposed to provide the executive branch with impartial legal advice, wrote two memos known as the “torture memos,” which attempted to redefine torture — including the use of waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning — so that it could be used by the CIA.
With the help of another of Cheney’s circle of close colleagues — Jim Haynes, the Pentagon’s general counsel — the torture techniques chosen were reverse-engineered from those taught in U.S. military schools to help U.S. military personnel resist interrogation if captured by a hostile enemy. Haynes had made the first approach to the organization responsible for the program, known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), and he also played a role in the spread of torture techniques first to Guantánamo, as approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in November 2002, and then to Iraq, leading to the horrors that were revealed around the world when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004.
Even so, Cheney’s biggest crime, to my mind, remains the way in which, while pretending to use torture to protect the American people from further terrorist attacks, he actually used it to attempt to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This bleak story involves Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran a training camp in Afghanistan — Khalden — that was shut down by the Taliban in 2000 after he refused to allow Osama bin Laden to take it over. Al-Libi was initially interrogated by the FBI, but they were brushed aside by the CIA, who flew al-Libi to Egypt, where the torturers of Hosni Mubarak’s savage regime secured a patently false confession that Saddam Hussein had met with two al-Qaeda operatives to discuss the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Al-Libi recanted the false confession obtained through torture — which apparently included waterboarding — in 2004, although the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had concluded at the time of the confession, in February 2002, that he had misled his torturers. However, no one told Colin Powell, who used it in the presentation he made to the UN Security Council in February 2003, a month before the invasion. That is alarming enough, but as it is clear that Dick Cheney knew about the DIA’s analysis that al-Libi had lied, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, while pretending to protect the American people, Cheney was actually responsible for using a lie obtained through torture to justify an illegal war that would lead to the deaths of thousands of U.S. military personnel, and of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Torture is a crime, for which Dick Cheney should pay, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, rather then being feted as some sort of entertainingly opinionated elder statesman. Above all, however, the al-Libi episode reveals the former vice president not only as a torturer, but also as some sort of a traitor, making his continued ability to walk free and to continue spreading his self-serving lies, a damning state of affairs for America as a whole, and one that should make decent Americans recoil in shame and horror from what they and their country have become.