Monday, April 27, 2009

Straight to the Top

By Scott Horton | Harper’s Magazine, April 27, 2009

Correction, April 29, 2009:

This post requires correction in two respects. First, as already noted, Ed Whelan, former Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, has categorically denied attending the July 2003 meeting mentioned there. Second, I wrongly described his writing at the National Review as “defenses of torture enablers.” This phrase is both vague and inaccurate, and I apologize for any misunderstanding it may have caused. Whelan has never written anything for the National Review in defense of torture or torture enablers.

The torture trail starts and ends in the White House. That is perhaps the most inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the flurry of documents released in the last week—first the OLC memoranda, then a newly declassified report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and finally an amazing document that Attorney General Eric Holder released yesterday, which has still gained little attention. The Holder note presents a summary of CIA interaction with the White House in connection with the approval of the torture techniques that John Yoo calls the “Bush Program.” Holder’s memo refers to the participants by their job titles only, but John Sifton runs it through a decoder and gives us the actual names. Here’s a key passage:

“[The] CIA’s Office of General Counsel [this would include current Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo] met with the Attorney General [John Ashcroft], the National Security Adviser [Condoleezza Rice], the Deputy National Security Adviser [Stephen Hadley], the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [John Bellinger], and the Counsel to the President [Alberto Gonzales] in mid-May 2002 to discuss the possible use of alternative interrogation methods [on Abu Zubaydah] that differed from the traditional methods used by the U.S. military and intelligence community. At this meeting, the CIA proposed particular alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding.”

The report continues to implicate more Bush officials: “On July 13, 2002, according to CIA records, attorneys from the CIA’s Office of General Counsel [including Rizzo] met with the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [Bellinger], a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from OLC [likely John Yoo], the head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice [Michael Chertoff], the chief of staff to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation [Kenneth Wainstein], and the Counsel to the President [Alberto Gonzales] to provide an overview of the proposed interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah.”

It makes clear that sign-off for torture comes from Condoleezza Rice, acting with the advice of her ever-present lawyer, John Bellinger. Another figure making a key appearance is an Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel named M. Edward Whelan III–presumably the same Ed Whelan who is presently melting his keyboard with defenses of the torture-enablers (Update, April 29, 2009: See correction.) at National Review. (Update: Andrew Sullivan also reported on the appearance of Whelan in the memo, but Whelan responded with a categorical denial that he was involved. This suggests that the memo’s chronology is incorrect and requires some clarification.) The central role played by Rice and Bellinger helps explain the State Department’s abrupt about-face on international law issues related to torture immediately after Rice became Secretary of State and Bellinger became Legal Adviser. It also makes clear that Vice President Cheney and President Bush were fully informed of what has happened and approved.

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