Did Bush Watch Torture Tapes?

Harper's Magazine

December 27, 2007 – The Times (London) Washington correspondent, Sarah Baxter, reporting with a summary of the developments in the case involving the CIA’s destruction of recordings of the treatment of Abu Zabaydah, points to the growing belief in Washington that President Bush viewed the torture tapes. Baxter reports:

It emerged yesterday that the CIA had misled members of the 9-11 Commission by not disclosing the existence of the tapes, in potential violation of the law. President George W Bush said last week he could not recall learning about the tapes before being briefed about them on December 6 by Michael Hayden, the CIA director. “It looks increasingly as though the decision was made by the White House,” said Johnson. He believes it is “highly likely” that Bush saw one of the videos, as he was interested in Zubaydah’s case and received frequent updates on his interrogation from George Tenet, the CIA director at the time.

It has emerged that the CIA did preserve two videotapes and an audiotape of detainee interrogations conducted by a foreign government, which may have been relevant to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al-Qaeda conspirator. The CIA told a federal judge in 2003 that no such recordings existed but has now retracted that testimony. One of the tapes could show the interrogation of Ramzi Binalshibh, a September 11 conspirator, who was allegedly handed to Jordan for questioning.

In this regards, the sequence of statements out of the White House is extremely revealing. It started with firm denials, then went silent and then pulled back rather sharply to a “President Bush has no present recollection of having seen the tapes.” This is a formulation frequently used to avoid perjury charges, a sort of way of saying “no” without really saying “no.” In between these statements, two more things unfolded that have a bearing on the question.

The New York Times squarely placed four White House lawyers in the middle of the decision about whether to destroy the tapes—Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Bellinger and Harriet Miers. It also reported that at least one of them was strongly advocating destruction. Suspicion immediately fell on the principle mover in support of torture, David Addington.

Second, John Kiriakou clarified his statements about the purpose for which the tapes were made. It was to brief higher ups about the process of the interrogation. Reports persist that one “higher-up” in particular had a special strong interest in knowing the details of the Abu Zubaydah case. His name is George W. Bush.

Are Bush’s denials that he has seen the torture tapes really credible? I don’t think so. And having seen them, the interest in their destruction would be equally fierce, which helps account for the involvement of the White House’s four most senior lawyers in the process. No doubt about it. The White House desperately wants to scapegoat some CIA people over this. (Laura Rozen’s article “Operation Stop Talking” is the best treatment so far of this phenomenon, which finds its best current expression in the effort to “get” John Kiriakou). But the trail leads to the White House, and that is clearly where the decision was taken. It will be interesting to see the techniques used by the Justice Department to obscure all of this. At this point, no one who’s tracked Justice Department antics over the past six years is anticipating anything but a crude cover-up.

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