At last, the torture debate looks to be heading toward what’s been the big question lurking in the background all along: was the Bush administration using torture in large part to make a political case for the invasion of Iraq?
Writing on The Daily Beast, former NBC producer Robert Windrem reports that in April 2003, Dick Cheney’s office suggested that interrogators waterboard an Iraqi detainee who was suspected of having knowledge of a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was questioned on the issue today in two TV interviews. Speaking to CNN, Whitehouse allowed: “I have heard that to be true.” To MSNBC, he noted that there was additional evidence of this in the Senate Armed Services committee report, and from Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell. “This thing is just getting deeper and deeper,” said Whitehouse, noting that if it were true, it would significantly bolster the case for prosecutions.
And MSNBC’s Chris Matthews also picked up on the issue this evening, as did Ed Schultz of the same network.
So let’s look at the evidence that’s emerged.
In a blog post today, Wilkerson wrote:
What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.
We spoke to Wilkerson this afternoon to get a bit more context for that information. He told us that he was asked by Colin Powell in April 2004, when Powell ran the State Department, to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of the torture program. Powell, he said, had just learned that the Abu Ghraib photos were going to come out, and wanted a comprehensive view of what was going on.
Wilkerson’s probe continued after he and Powell left office. In 2005 he formed an informal working group made up of retired military officers and human rights activists. He was motivated, he said, by a desire to keep the armed services — an institution he had served in for much of his life and revered — from getting embroiled in the torture controversy. He’s also working on a forthcoming book — though he said, half-jokingly, that he’s considering delaying publication until after Powell has died, because in places he’s critical of his former boss.
Wilkerson said that his information about torture being used to find a Saddam-Qaeda link came from people concerned to “defend the integrity” of the CIA. He said that according to these people, outside contractors, rather than CIA personnel, were used for these interrogations — something that jibes with what we already know.
There’s certainly no love lost between Wilkerson and Cheney. Explaining Cheney’s recent outspokenness on the torture issue, Wilkerson told us: “Cheney is now on a personal ego-inspired trip. He cares not about his party. He cares not about his country. He cares only about being justified. And that is dangerous territory.”
But the jist of Wilkerson’s claims has already been formally reported last month, by McClatchy, based on the Senate Armed Services committee report, and its own interviews:
A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.
“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”
A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under “pressure” to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.
“While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq,” Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. “The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
In other words, Windrem’s report today hardly comes out of the blue. In fact, the mounting evidence that the administration explicitly used torture to make a political case for the war in Iraq is only the latest reason why we need a full investigation of this whole dirty business.