In retrospect, George W. Bush’s legacy doesn’t look as bad as it did when he left office. It looks worse.
I join the nation in congratulating Bush on the opening of his presidential library in Dallas. Like many people, I find it much easier to honor, respect and even like the man — now that he’s no longer in the White House.
But anyone tempted to get sentimental should remember the actual record of the man who called himself The Decider. Begin with the indelible stain that one of his worst decisions left on our country’s honor: torture.
Hiding behind the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Bush made torture official U.S. policy. Just about every objective observer has agreed with this stark conclusion. The most recent assessment came this month in a 576-page report from a task force of the bipartisan Constitution Project, which stated that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.”
We knew about the torture before Bush left office — at least, we knew about the waterboarding of three “high-value” detainees involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. But the Constitution Project task force — which included such figures as Asa Hutchinson, who served in high-ranking posts in the Bush administration, and William Sessions, who was FBI director under three presidents — concluded that other forms of torture were used “in many instances” in a manner that was “directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.”
Bush administration apologists argue that even waterboarding does not necessarily constitute torture and that other coercive — and excruciatingly painful — interrogation methods, such as putting subjects in “stress positions” or exposing them to extreme temperatures, certainly do not. The task force strongly disagreed, citing U.S. laws and court rulings, international treaties and common decency.
The Senate intelligence committee has produced, but refuses to make public, a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s use of torture and the network of clandestine “black site” prisons the agency established under Bush. One of President Obama’s worst decisions upon taking office in 2009, in my view, was to decline to convene some kind of blue-ribbon “truth commission” to bring all the abuses to light.
It may be years before all the facts are known. But the decision to commit torture looks ever more shameful with the passage of time.
Bush’s decision to invade and conquer Iraq also looks, in hindsight, like an even bigger strategic error. Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction still have yet to be found; nearly 5,000 Americans and untold Iraqis sacrificed their lives to eliminate a threat that did not exist.
We knew this, of course, when Obama became president. It’s one of the main reasons he was elected. We knew, too, that Bush’s decision to turn to Iraq diverted focus and resources from Afghanistan. But I don’t think anyone fully grasped that giving the Taliban a long, healing respite would eventually make Afghanistan this country’s longest or second-longest war, depending on what date you choose as the beginning of hostilities in Vietnam.
And it’s clear that the Bush administration did not foresee how the Iraq experience would constrain future presidents in their use of military force. Syria is a good example. Like Saddam, Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator who does not hesitate to massacre his own people. But unlike Saddam, Assad does have weapons of mass destruction. And unlike Saddam, Assad has alliances with the terrorist group Hezbollah and the nuclear-mad mullahs in Iran.
I do not advocate U.S. intervention in Syria, because I fear we might make things worse rather than better. But I wonder how I might feel — and what options Obama might have — if we had not squandered so much blood and treasure in Iraq.
Bush didn’t pay for his wars. The bills he racked up for military adventures, prescription-drug benefits, the bank bailout and other impulse purchases helped create the fiscal and financial crises he bequeathed to Obama. His profligacy also robbed the Republican Party establishment of small-government credibility, thus helping give birth to the tea party movement. Thanks a lot for that.
As I’ve written before, Bush did an enormous amount of good by making it possible for AIDS sufferers in Africa to receive antiretroviral drug therapy. This literally saved millions of lives and should weigh heavily on one side of the scale when we assess The Decider’s presidency. But the pile on the other side just keeps getting bigger.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 25, 2013
There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era’s torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I’ve never heard any of them answer: How do the defender’s of “enhanced interrogation” (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since “ethnic cleansing”) define torture? I’ll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration’s torture program on many occasions. Since I haven’t seen the film I can’t say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: “I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.” And why aren’t the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of “stress positions,” which are used to cause excruciating pain without leaving a mark—torture? Here’s the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:
Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.
You see, they had a memo saying that what they were doing wasn’t torture, so there you go. And when the detainee became compliant, they stopped! It obviously can’t be torture if it ends when the subject is broken, right?
Here’s the question I’ve never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn’t include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That’s not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he’d prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That’s the purpose of waterboarding, that’s the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that’s the purpose of stress positions. The “enhanced” techniques that were used weren’t meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.
So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn’t torture, how would its apologists define the term?
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 7, 2013
Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.
Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.
Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October.
In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”
Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.”
When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”
Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.
Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.
In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”
Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”
While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.
And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.
It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”
And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.
Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.
By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, October 23, 2012
The big piece today is in the Washington Post, where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward share a byline for the first time in 36 years. It’s about President Nixon and Watergate 40 years after the fact, and how the whole situation was much worse than was thought back then:
Ervin’s answer to his own question hints at the magnitude of Watergate: “To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.” Yet Watergate was far more than that. At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.
Today, much more than when we first covered this story as young Washington Post reporters, an abundant record provides unambiguous answers and evidence about Watergate and its meaning. This record has expanded continuously over the decades with the transcription of hundreds of hours of Nixon’s secret tapes, adding detail and context to the hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives; the trials and guilty pleas of some 40 Nixon aides and associates who went to jail; and the memoirs of Nixon and his deputies. Such documentation makes it possible to trace the president’s personal dominance over a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against his real or perceived opponents.
The article is full of great quotes from the Nixon tapes as he became increasingly paranoid and irrational, going on profanity-laced tirades against journalists, the antiwar movement, and “the Jews,” among others. But what is perhaps most notable about the article is the implicit frame it presents. The sense I get from it is that Woodward and Bernstein are presenting a cautionary tale, a kind of story to tell young politicians before you tuck them into bed. “Be careful, kids, or this is where you’ll end up.”
The trouble with this is that recent cases of elite lawbreaking, up to and including top officials, are still almost too common to count. Just for the most obvious example, consider the fact that George Bush has admitted to ordering the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. There’s a ginned up controversy about whether or not that was against the law, but don’t take my word for it, listen to the chief law enforcement officer of the United States:
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder declared that the interrogation practice known as waterboarding amounts to torture, departing from the interpretation of his Bush administration predecessors.
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Nixon was not the last of the presidential lawbreakers. Far from it.
By: Ryan Cooper, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 6, 2012
Self-reflection is not something we have come to expect in elected officials, particularly those who have left office fairly recently. But could former Vice President Dick Cheney have not even made the slightest effort to convince people he didn’t deserve the “Darth Vader” moniker assigned by his foes?
Cheney’s memoir, written with his daughter, Liz Cheney, is so unapologetic as to be a caricature. One could hardly imagine that Cheney—or even anyone from the recently-departed Bush administration—would suddenly decide that the war in Iraq had been a mistake, based on lies. But he might have acknowledged that the basis for going to war—even if one believes that it was an honest misunderstanding, instead of a craven lie—turned out to be (oops!) not true. He chides the nation for failing to live within its means, but fails to consider the fiscal impact of two wars, massive tax cuts and a huge Medicare drug entitlement program. And his no-apology book tour confirms the theme; Cheney told the Today show that he thinks waterboarding is an acceptable way for the United States to get information out of suspected terrorists, but says he’d object if another nation did it to a U.S. citizens.
Former President George Bush certainly offered no apologies in his memoir, and that’s to be expected. But Bush wasn’t mean or angry in his book. He even told a rather charming story of how an African-American staffer had brought his two young boys to the White House during the waning days of the presidency, and that one of the boys had asked, “Where’s Barack Obama?” There is characteristically nothing kind or charming or insightful to be found in Cheney’s tome. Even the cover is daunting—a grimacing Cheney inside the White House, looking like he’s deliberately trying to scare away the tourists.
The shot against former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is inexcusable: Cheney tells a story about how Rice had “tearfully” admitted to him that she was wrong to tell Bush that he should have apologized for misleading the American public about Saddam Hussein’s alleged attempt to secure yellowcake uranium from Niger. Whether Rice broke down before Cheney, we may never know. But to turn an accomplished woman like Rice into some silly, weak little girl is unforgivable. Agree with Rice or not. Slam her for misstating or misreading intelligence before and after 9-11 or not. But she is brilliant; she has dedicated her life to scholarship and public service, and she deserves to be treated better.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell—who preceded Rice, and whom Cheney seems to believe was somehow hounded from office, although Powell said he had always intended to stay just one term—offers the best summation: Cheney took some “cheap shots” in the book. That’s not the reflective mindset necessary for a memoir.
By: Susan Milligan, U.S. News and World Report, August 30, 2011