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Book of Matthew: The Bush Administration’s Tortured Past

Published: May 27, 2009
Section: Opinions


A startling story is coming to light regarding the role of torture in the Bush Administration.

Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson—a former chief of staff of the State Department under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell—believes that the Bush administration crossed several ethical lines in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

He claims that in the spring of 2002, the administration authorized the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation methods,” as they put it) on enemy detainees in order to coerce them into revealing a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. They finally got a confession from a detainee named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who acknowledged the existence of a link while being subjected to waterboarding.

Wilkerson is not alone in making such statements. In an article published for the online newspaper McClatchy on May 15, 2009, for example, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Brittain Mallow said he was aware that the administration had tasked intelligence officials with the job of finding a link between al-Qaeda and Hussein.

The article also cites a 2006 interview between Army psychiatrist Major Paul Burney and the Army Inspector General’s office, in which Burney claimed that in the run-up to the war Army interrogators were becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to find the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq that they were under so much pressure to find.

Even former Vice President Dick Cheney hinted at the administration’s less-than-stellar behavior. In a 2004 interview with the Rocky Mountain News in which he attempted to defend the war in Iraq, Cheney claimed that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay had revealed—through “interrogation”—that the nation of Iraq had trained al-Qaeda members in the use of chemical and biological weapons. He and the rest of the administration considered this to be a definite link that justified the war.

This story tells us two very important things.

First, it shows that torture is ineffective. The act of torturing involves a torturer inflicting physical or mental pain on a detainee, with the purpose of persuading the detainee to give up useful information. In theory, this should work, as it would seem that any detainee would prefer to spill his/her secrets rather than suffer through the torture. In practice, however, things aren’t so simple. As torturers have yet to develop the ability to read minds, they can never be sure if their victims are lying to them. This leaves torturers in the same place they were before they began to administer the torture: clueless.

As we now know, the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq was never anything more than a figment of the Bush administration’s collective imagination. The fact that al-Libi “confirmed” the link means nothing—he did so under torture and was merely trying to say what he thought his captors wanted to hear.

With this in mind, the second thing this story tells us is even more disturbing. As we learn more about the intelligence operations leading up to the Iraq War, we are presented with an increasingly darkening picture of the Bush administration and its “concern” for America’s safety and well-being. This was an administration that was so eager to topple Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq that it was perfectly willing to mislead Americans into supporting that effort; not only that, but it apparently had no qualms about using inhumane methods of interrogation in order to acquire the faulty information that was used to do the misleading. That the conflicts they sought would only endanger us further never seemed to register.
Eight years later, as the results of their leadership still remain visible in the form of war and global crisis, one has to wonder what else they lied about; what other unspeakable acts they committed in order to achieve their shadowy goals.

We may never know the full truth. Because Obama administration officials—though they are tasked with defending the Constitution and upholding the rule of law—have thus far made little effort to investigate the abuses of their predecessors. Instead, Bush administration officials have been free to fuel a growing torture debate, in which they attempt to defend their indefensible actions.

For example, Cheney is currently spending his retirement waging a relentless media campaign, appearing on prominent news shows such as CBS’s Face the Nation. Apparently oblivious to the fact that under his watch almost 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks of 9/11 and almost 5,000 Americans were killed while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cheney has the audacity to lecture President Obama on the subject of national security and to criticize him for ending the policy of torturing suspected terrorists.

Perhaps Cheney and the men and women with whom he worked for eight years see themselves as great leaders who kept this country safe. They were not. Great leaders come in the form of men like Winston Churchill, who, despite leading a bludgeoned, weakening empire against the seemingly unstoppable power of Nazi Germany, refused to torture any one of the hundreds of Nazi prisoners held by the British government. It was a moral threshold that he felt should not be crossed, even during the worst of times.

Great leaders do not come in the form of power-hungry Bush administration officials who deemed it necessary to sink to some of humanity’s lowest levels. We have other words to describe them. Fear-mongerers. Cowards. Above all, war criminals.

Yes, war criminals. Think that’s too harsh? Too partisan?

Well, I reject the notion held by some, that in order to enter President Obama’s “new era of bipartisanship” we must forgive the crimes committed by our previous leaders and move on as if nothing ever happened. This is as naïve as it is foolish. Regardless of how bad it may look in the media, or how much it may anger die-hard, partisan Republicans, the truth surrounding these reprehensible acts must be allowed to surface, and the perpetrators must be held accountable.

That is how a nation of high moral standing operates. And that is how we set an example for the rest of the world to respect, and to follow.