Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Failures of Bush and the Republican Leadership

The revelations just keep on coming. We are in an election season to see if our nation will change course and recover the principles our nation was founded on or whether Bush will have a de facto third term through Senator John McCain. The situation is grim. In their final year in office, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have still not come clean with the American people. They lied their way into a war our nation did not need. They have committed crimes or encouraged the committing of crimes by others that have damaged the reputation of the United States and that have violated the U.S. Constitution. They have engaged in a level of cronyism not seen since the 1920s.

The character of the president and the vice president are well enough known in their eighth year in office that we know they are incapable of accepting responsibility for their actions and incapable of telling the American people the truth. Most of the leadership of the Republican Party has also turned away from principles that have often guided our nation for over two hundred years. In fact, some Republicans who have been in leadership positions at some point in the last few years are now more concerned about lobbying for major corporations or foreign governments and soaking the American people for every penny they can get (the bigger the favor they do for their client, the bigger the fee).

Even if Barack Obama gets elected, our nation will have a chance if, and only if, a large number of progressive Democrats win this fall. The Democratic Party is not without its problems. The same crooked business interests that have been recruiting and cultivating the members of the new Republican Party over the last thirty years have also been doing their best to find friendly Democrats in states and districts where Republicans are not likely to win. We can see a small number of these 'friendly' Democrats in the House and Senate. The real question is whether Americans understand what is at stake.

The new Scott McClellan, who doesn't squirm, twist and equivocate like he did when he was Bush's press secretary, has said the Bush Administration used propaganda to get us into the war in Iraq and the American press did not do nearly enough to question the premises for war. Think back a couple of weeks. Here's the response the Bush Administration had to McClellan's revelations (from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution):

White House aides seemed stunned by the scathing tone of [McClellan's] book, and Bush press secretary Dana Perino issued a statement that was highly critical of their former colleague.

"Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House," she said. "For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is sad - this is not the Scott we knew."

Perino said the reports on the book had been described to Bush, and that she did not expect him to comment. "He has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers," she said.

The president has more pressing matters than telling the American people the truth. Sad indeed. For those Americans paying attention, we got a dose of the truth this week in Congressional testimony by Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell (his testimony can be found at The Gavel and through Think Progress); he spoke about Abu Ghraib, torture and the particular failures of Cheney and Rumsfeld:

Mr. Chairman, let me back up for a moment and tell you why this was a particularly important effort for me and I believe for Secretary Powell as well. Clearly, we were—we are—both soldiers. Moreover, we are both veterans of the war in Vietnam and we are both students of military history. We both know how soldiers go astray in the heat of battle, with buddies being killed and wounded all around—particularly in wars that seem to have no end, no light at the end of the tunnel.

In Vietnam, as a first lieutenant and a captain of Infantry, on several occasions I had to restrain my soldiers, even one or two of my officers. When higher authorities took such actions as declaring free fire zones—meaning that anything that moved in that zone could be killed—and you came upon a 12-year old girl on a jungle path in that zone, it was clear you were not going to follow orders. But some situations were not so black and white and you had to be always on guard against your soldiers slipping over the edge. As their leader, it was incumbent upon me to set the example—and that meant sometimes reprimanding or punishing a soldier who broke the rules. In all cases, it meant that I personally followed the rules and not just by "breaking" the so-called rules of engagement, as in the designated free fire zone, but by following the rules that had been ingrained in me by my parents, by my schools, by my church, and by the U.S. Army in classes about the Geneva Conventions and what we called the law of land warfare. I had been taught and I firmly believed when I took the oath of an officer and swore to support and defend the Constitution, that American soldiers were different and that much of their fighting strength and spirit came from that difference and that much of that difference was wrapped up in our humaneness and our respect for the rights of all.

So, Mr. Chairman, when I saw the first photographs from the prison at Abu Ghraib, I had two immediate reactions. First, I knew such things could happen. Second, I knew such things were wrong and I knew that leadership had failed. What I did not know, was on what level that leadership had failed. So I set out to find the answer.


...echoing the President and the Vice President's own words, the word went out that the gloves were off, and we were going to have to work "sort of the dark side". That same day at Camp David, September 16, 2001, when the Vice President referred to the dark side, he also told Tim Russert: "'s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."

These words reminded me of what Undersecretary of Defense Robert Lovett had argued as the Cold War was heating up, after the Soviets had developed and tested a nuclear weapon in 1949. Lovett argued in 1950 that the nation was "in a war worse than any we have ever experienced" and that this meant doing away with the "sharp line between democratic principles and immoral actions...." Lovett considered such distinctions as a "dangerous and unnecessary handicap" in the struggle with communism. He said he wanted to fight the Soviets “with no holds barred....". In my view, it was fortunate for the nation that Truman did not follow Lovett's advice.

But many in the Pentagon, and eventually the armed forces, did seem to follow the advice, however implicit, of Lovett's reincarnation in 2001, Vice President Cheney. In short, the Pentagon needed intelligence; people should go out and get it. And the usual rules were not going to apply; new rules would be forthcoming. Even as a result of my early investigations at the State Department, this overriding reality was clear. But somewhere in that early part of 2002, some of the principals also began to worry about legalities. It was likely earlier even but I could find nothing in late 2001. Perhaps someday others will.


It's my strong view that the legal proceedings were led by David Addington, who turned to Jay Bybee and John Yoo at the Department of Justice, and Alberto Gonzales in the White House, then counselor to the President.

These were the lawyers who set the legal background against which other-than-standard interrogation methods would be explained away as "in accord with the Geneva Conventions", "not constituting torture", "fully within the Article II powers of the Commander-in Chief", and so forth. At Defense, Jim Haynes and Douglas Feith would adapt these views to their needs at the Pentagon. Indeed, in the recent book Torture Team by English barrister Philippe Sands, in extended interviews Mr. Feith appears to express no small degree of pride in having helped make the Geneva Conventions adaptable to the needs of the new interrogation regime. In my view, this was done largely through artifice not unlike the angels sitting on the pinhead. Such artifice may appeal to certain lawyers but I assure you soldiers have no use for it for they know how dangerous such arguments are when put to the hard act of execution in the field.

Meanwhile, the operational end of this affair was orchestrated by the Secretary of Defense and his subordinates, Haynes, Feith, Stephen Cambone and I'm quite certain others. Certain of these individuals, including Addington, even visited the prison at Guantánamo Bay in September 2002 to get a better grip on what was happening to acquire actionable intelligence and to inform their own views about what was possible.

There has been an argument that U.S. Southern Command queried the Defense Department with respect to interrogation procedures for GITMO, and thus the impetus for the new procedures came from the field. There is a paper trail that seems to have been laid down to support that. What I found, however, was that Southern Command's query was expected (set up perhaps?) and that OSD General Counsel, in league with the others in the legal group, had already worked up what the legal position was going to be. In short, there were people in DOD at the highest level who knew what they wanted: actionable intelligence. They also knew, or thought they knew, that the only way they were going to get it from battle-hardened al Qa'ida operatives was to use harsh interrogation methods. And that's the bottom line.

Depressingly to me, these men also seemed to have the cavalier disregard for any innocents who might be caught up in this process that one often finds in men safely to the rear of the real action. Soldiers call such men "REMFs". I won’t elaborate on that acronym.


Moreover, this was a man—and these were men—who could not bring the challenge he thought he was confronting to the legislative branch and ask for relief. To come to the people's representatives, and through them to the people, was beneath this group. They would not deign to ask the legislature to change the rules for the Armed Forces—a legislature vested by our Constitution with the power to "make Rules concerning Captures on land and water" and "To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces." Instead, they made the rules all by themselves in secret.

This is damning testimony. And yet, if anything, I believe Wilkerson lets Bush off too easily. And he could have been harder on Cheney and Rumsfeld. But Wilkerson is restricting himself to documentation that he has been able to accumulate. It is certainly more documentation than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ever hoped that anyone would acquire.

Major General Antonio Taguba was the lead investigator for the army into the Abu Ghraib scandal. He is an honest man who paid for his honesty with his career when he failed to participate in a coverup. Last year, Sy Hersh interviewed Taguba for the New Yorker; here are some excerpts:
In a series of interviews early this year, the first he has given, Taguba told me that he understood when he began the inquiry that it could damage his career; early on, a senior general in Iraq had pointed out to him that the abused detainees were “only Iraqis.” Even so, he was not prepared for the greeting he received when he was finally ushered in.

“Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba—of the Taguba report!” Rumsfeld declared, in a mocking voice. The meeting was attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.); and General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, along with Craddock and other officials.


[Major General Mike] Myatt followed Taguba’s involvement in the Abu Ghraib inquiry, and said, “I was so proud of him. I told him, ‘Tony, you’ve maintained yourself, and your integrity.’ ”

Taguba got a different message, however, from other officers, among them General John Abizaid, then the head of Central Command. A few weeks after his report became public, Taguba, who was still in Kuwait, was in the back seat of a Mercedes sedan with Abizaid. Abizaid’s driver and his interpreter, who also served as a bodyguard, were in front. Abizaid turned to Taguba and issued a quiet warning: “You and your report will be investigated.”

“I wasn’t angry about what he said but disappointed that he would say that to me,” Taguba said. “I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia.”


Taguba came to believe that Lieutenant General Sanchez, the Army commander in Iraq, and some of the generals assigned to the military headquarters in Baghdad had extensive knowledge of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib even before Joseph Darby came forward with the CD. Taguba was aware that in the fall of 2003—when much of the abuse took place—Sanchez routinely visited the prison, and witnessed at least one interrogation. According to Taguba, “Sanchez knew exactly what was going on.”

Recently Sanchez offered a choice quotation from the president (quote highlighted by Michael Abramowitz of The Washington Post):

Among the anecdotes in "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story" is an arresting portrait of Bush after four contractors were killed in Fallujah in 2004, triggering a fierce U.S. response that was reportedly egged on by the president.

During a videoconference with his national security team and generals, Sanchez writes, Bush launched into what he described as a "confused" pep talk:

"Kick ass!" he quotes the president as saying. "If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal."

"There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

A White House spokesman had no comment.

But Sanzchez knew what was going on. As did many others. No doubt Abu Ghraib was toxic and endangered more careers than just that of the lead investigator.

In a preface to Broken Laws, Broken Lives, a report by Physicians for Human Rights that details torture by the U.S., Taguba writes about the torture that took place in Iraq and elsewhere:
In order for these individuals to suffer the wanton cruelty to which they were subjected, a government policy was promulgated to the field whereby the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice were disregarded. The UN Convention Against Torture was indiscriminately ignored. And the healing professions, including physicians and psychologists, became complicit in the willful infliction of harm against those the Hippocratic Oath demands they protect.

After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

Lt. Col Larry Wilkerson speaks eloquently about what is right and what is wrong. Major General Antonio Taguba understood his duty to the constitution and the law. The John McCain of 2000 seemed to understand. I do not know where John McCain stands in this important election year. But the signs are not good. A Commander-in-Chief who doesn't know the difference between Shiites or Sunnis is worrisome. And McCain talks of staying in Iraq for a hundred years. He totally backs Bush on the war. He is unable to acknowledge the lies that got us into this war.

In short, John McCain is incapable of holding George W. Bush accountable and that in itself suggests it is time for change in Washington.

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