TPM drew my attention to an ABC news story [Sources: Top Bush Advisors Approved 'Enhanced Interrogation'] that reveals some new depths to the Bush administration’s unique mix of malevolence, incompetence, and bureaucratic tomfoolery. I can certainly agree that if the government discovers some real evidence of some real and imminent threat, rare as they tend to be, certain bounds may have to be temporarily overstepped. There may be a need to get a little tough or vicious occasionally in some desperate situation. That’s a risk people in positions of leadership and officer on the front lines of wars have to take, and there have been few cases in history where necessary desperate action in a truly good cause was seriously questioned later. (I think that’s true.) It is unnecessary acts and questionable causes that get people in trouble later.
The CheneyCorp version of being tough, on the other hand, involves adopting vicious tactics on principle and permanently moving the boundaries away from historic democratic ideals. Yet for tough guys the administration is not very good at actual toughness, except in domestic and bureaucratic politics. What kind of tough guys write get-out-of-jail free cards for themselves in advance — The Golden Shield they called it — and then hold regular meetings where they decide just how many cans of whup-ass are going to be used on a particular suspect, what degree of the business was to be given, when a good thrashing was in order, and how many simulated drownings a week should be allowed. There seems to have been no talk about what actual information they would be expecting to get out of those interrogations, nor about any concrete plots that were foiled. It was the worst of both worlds: they were not catching or scaring off any terrorists, but they were making the United States look nasty and foolish and hypocritical, and getting it down on paper!
It seems more likely that everyone in those meetings except Dick Cheney understood that what was happening was likely to be deemed illegal some day, and was unlikely to work, so the CIA’s main focus was establishing their defenses for later on. Even the agents who had their Golden Shields still asked for and got a paper trail leading all the way to the top. You know things are off the rails when John Ashcroft had to be the man providing the reality checks. “According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: ‘Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.’ ” No, not kindly, but perhaps with a little black humor.
The second half of the article, including this quite, I have pasted below the jump:
Lawyers in the Justice Department had written a classified memo, which was extensively reviewed, that gave formal legal authority to government interrogators to use the “enhanced” questioning tactics on suspected terrorist prisoners. The August 2002 memo, signed by then head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee, was referred to as the so-called “Golden Shield” for CIA agents, who worried they would be held liable if the harsh interrogations became public.Old hands in the intelligence community remembered vividly how past covert operations, from the Vietnam War-era “Phoenix Program” of assassinations of Viet Cong to the Iran-Contra arms sales of the 1980s were painted as the work of a “rogue agency” out of control.
But even after the “Golden Shield” was in place, briefings and meetings in the White House to discuss individual interrogations continued, sources said. Tenet, seeking to protect his agents, regularly sought confirmation from the NSC principals that specific interrogation plans were legal.
According to a former CIA official involved in the process, CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques. Agents, worried about overstepping their boundaries, would await guidance in particularly complicated cases dealing with high-value detainees, two CIA sources said.
Highly placed sources said CIA directors Tenet and later Porter Goss along with agency lawyers briefed senior advisers, including Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell, about detainees in CIA custody overseas.
“It kept coming up. CIA wanted us to sign off on each one every time,” said one high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. “They’d say, ‘We’ve got so and so. This is the plan.’”
Sources said that at each discussion, all the Principals present approved.
“These discussions weren’t adding value,” a source said. “Once you make a policy decision to go beyond what you used to do and conclude it’s legal, (you should) just tell them to implement it.”
Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.
According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
The Principals also approved interrogations that combined different methods, pushing the limits of international law and even the Justice Department’s own legal approval in the 2002 memo, sources told ABC News.
At one meeting in the summer of 2003 — attended by Vice President Cheney, among others — Tenet made an elaborate presentation for approval to combine several different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time, according to a highly placed administration source.
A year later, amidst the outcry over unrelated abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the controversial 2002 legal memo, which gave formal legal authorization for the CIA interrogation program of the top al Qaeda suspects, leaked to the press. A new senior official in the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith, withdrew the legal memo — the Golden Shield — that authorized the program.
But the CIA had captured a new al Qaeda suspect in Asia. Sources said CIA officials that summer returned to the Principals Committee for approval to continue using certain “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Then-National Security Advisor Rice, sources said, was decisive. Despite growing policy concerns — shared by Powell — that the program was harming the image of the United States abroad, sources say she did not back down, telling the CIA: “This is your baby. Go do it.”