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05.20.09

Cheney's Big Torture Speech

As the former vice president takes the stage Thursday morning—at the same time as Obama—The Daily Beast's John Sifton on what to look out for, from defending interrogations to rehashing dubious claims about how they kept us safe.

At Dick Cheney’s big national-security speech Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, expect the former vice president to criticize the Obama administration’s closure of the CIA detention and interrogation program. He’ll also attempt to give a defense of Bush administration counterterrorism tactics, including the use of torture on suspected terrorists.

Of course, Cheney won’t call the CIA techniques “torture.” He’ll defend interrogations as “aggressive” but legal—or at least thought to be legal at the time they were used. Cheney’s also likely to make some arguments about the necessities of using the aggressive techniques and claim that terrorist plots were disrupted because of the CIA’s actions. (Yet he will not explain why, if the techniques were legal, it is so vital that they be justified by claims about their effectiveness.)

A particular lie Cheney is likely to get caught up on is the timeline. If you hope to talk your way out of something, it’s important to make sure your storyline somehow matches known facts.

Cheney will also say he can’t talk about the details of how those plots were disrupted, though he may rehash President Bush’s dubious claims about the disruption of a plot to destroy the Los Angeles Library Tower, claims that have been debunkedthoroughly. He’ll likely make a sardonic comment about how he, like the American Civil Liberties Union, is seeking to have documents declassified that will vindicate Bush-era policies.

Therein is the silver lining to President Obama’s foot-dragging on seeking accountability for detainee abuse. In the absence of the threat of prosecution, at least some Bush-era perpetrators seem to be singing like canaries. Cheney continues to make incriminating statements about torture and his role in facilitating its use and approval. With hope, today’s appearance at AEI will be no different.

Ironically, if this were a typical criminal investigation and Cheney a suspected criminal, his status as a suspect would be a secret, and the government would be happy not to indict him, and keep its suspicions secret, for as long as he continued to make self-incriminating statements. As former prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega has already argued, in some respects a criminal investigation is the last thing anyone seeking accountability would want right now. Let them keep talking: Let them hang themselves with their own rope.

Of course, not everything Cheney will say will be self-implicating. Like any criminal talking about his crimes, Cheney is likely to mix fact and fiction. He will not make a full admission as Jack Nicholson did in A Few Good Men, when asked by Tom Cruise, “Did you order the code red?” (“You're goddamn right I did!”)

He’ll gently try to justify his actions, or minimize his role, yet he’ll only dig himself in deeper.

A particular lie Cheney is likely to get caught up on is the timeline. If you hope to talk your way out of something, it’s important to make sure your storyline somehow matches known facts. Yet at some point in Cheney’s speech today, he is likely to repeat the claim that CIA interrogation techniques were thoroughly vetted by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel—and suggest that the White House and CIA only proceeded with torture once officials were certain that their actions were legal and had obtained memos from OLC saying so.

As Cheney recently told CBS: “We had captured these people. We had pursued interrogation in a normal way. We decided that we needed some enhanced techniques. So we went to the Justice Department. And the controversy has arisen over the opinions written by the Justice Department. The reason we went to the Justice Department wasn’t because we felt we were going to take some kind of free hand assault on these people or that we were in the torture business. We weren’t. And specifically, what we got from the Office of Legal Counsel were legal memos that laid out what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate, in light of our international commitments. If we had been about torture, we wouldn’t have wasted our time going to the Justice Department.” Er, OK...

The problem with this narrative is that it simply isn’t what happened. Discussions at OLC about legal interpretations on interrogation methods didn’t take place in earnest until July 2002, whereas the CIA began using “enhanced techniques” on one of the earliest CIA detainees, Abu Zubaydah, in May 2002—a fact revealed in a Department of Justice Inspector General report last year, in a Senate Armed Services Committee report declassified last month, and in testimony by Zubaydah’s FBI interrogator Ali Soufan before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. It seems the OLC memos were drafted after the fact to justify actions that were already under way.

In any case, putting aside Zubaydah’s interrogation, what about earlier CIA misdeeds? The fact is that the National Security Council “Principals Group,” on which Cheney sat along with Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, began approving renditions of terrorism suspects to countries like Egypt and Syria long before any OLC memos were written. Some renditions began in late 2001.

One of those earlier rendered suspects, Ali Mohamed al Fakhiri, commonly known as Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi, was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and rendered by the CIA to Egypt. While under torture there, he gave false information about purported links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein—“intelligence” that ended up being cited in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in the leadup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Cheney himself alluded to at various points when he tried to argue the Iraq-al Qaeda link.

Senate investigations have made clear the CIA was complicit in his torture in Egypt—agents were in Cairo as he was being tortured—and that Libi was also later sent into the CIA prison program. (Incidentally, Libi ended up being sent home Libya. Authorities announced last week that he just killed himself—a mere week after a delegation from Human Rights Watch visited him in a prison in Tripoli. His family and human-rights groups have understandably called for an investigation.)

Cheney is sure to gloss over embarrassing illegalities like Libi’s rendition-to-torture and the intelligence failures it produced on Iraq and al Qaeda. Cheney will fall back on a general narrative in which, whatever the legality of actions taken while he was in office, the administration’s motives were pure: to protect the United States of America. The Libi case, of course, suggests otherwise: that torture was sometimes used to gin up intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Fact and fiction, any good prosecutor is glad to keep Cheney talking: He’s weaving his own rope. Let us hope he hangs himself today.

John Sifton is a private investigator and attorney based in New York. His  firm, One World Research, carries out research for law firms and human-rights groups, including in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. He has conducted extensive investigations into the CIA interrogation and detention program.