Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Human rights groups rush to decry Bush’s ‘Decision Points’ defense of waterboarding

Even before the former president’s new memoir comes out Tuesday, it has roused calls — in Minnesota and around the nation — for a full investigation of what is seen widely as the illegal torture of CIA detainees under Bush’s watch.

Former President George H.W. Bush, right, watches as his son, former President George W. Bush, throws a ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of Game 4 of the World Series.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Former President George H.W. Bush watches as his son, former President George W. Bush, throws a ceremonial pitch before Game 4 of the World Series.

Even before the new memoir of former President George W. Bush comes out on Tuesday, it has roused calls — in Minnesota and around the nation — for a full investigation of what is seen widely as the illegal torture of CIA detainees under Bush’s watch.

In the book, “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the 9/11 plotter who was suspected at the time of knowing about other pending terrorist strikes, the Washington Post reported. The Post attributed the information to “someone close to Bush who has read the book.”

“Bush writes that his reply was ‘Damn right’ and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives,” the Post reported.

Critics: ‘Harms American security’
The response from human rights groups and some church leaders was swift and sharp.

“This cavalier attitude by the President who authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law not only damages our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but also discourages global cooperation to combat terrorism,” said Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.

Just last week, bombs shipped on airplanes bound for the United States were stopped because of the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, Johnson noted.

That, he said, stands as an urgent reminder that “we need the trust of individuals and governments worldwide.” And we have a better chance of winning that trust if we as a nation reject torture. For a leader to make “such careless and rash remarks” at this point harms American security, Johnson said.

No excuse, campaign says
Bush’s expressed justification — that waterboarding saved lives — was “wholly inadequate and unjustifiable,” said the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The Minnesota Council of Churches is part of the Campaign’s multi-denominational and multi-faith coalition of nearly 300 religious groups from around the nation.

“U.S.-sponsored torture has cost innumerable lives of both American soldiers and civilians, because it has inspired extremists to commit acts of terror against us. It has cost us dearly,” Killmer said. “Torture does not make us safer; it makes us more of a target.”

It’s not torture, Bush says
Bush has never acknowledged that anyone was tortured under his watch — and, apparently, he believes he is not doing so now.

He had declared in 2002 that fighters for al-Qaida and the Taliban were not protected under the Geneva Conventions’ prohibitions against torturing prisoners of war and treating them in cruel, humiliating and degrading ways. Even so, Bush said at the time, detainees would be treated in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.

Decision Points

But evidence to the contrary mounted through revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Then, Bush acknowledged that the CIA had maintained secret prisons overseas. Reports surfaced that detainees in those lockups had been subjected to waterboarding (a near-drowning experience) and other tactics that shocked many Americans. Amid a national outcry and investigations on Capitol Hill, the CIA said it had stopped using such “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Throughout the give and take, Bush steadfastly rejected any use of the word “torture” to describe those tactics. And he reiterates that view in the book, the Post reported.

It is torture, others say
Shortly after Bush left office though, Susan Crawford, his top official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo detainees to trial, said publicly that the U.S. military had tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was subjected to sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold.

Since then, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. have said that waterboarding amounts to torture as it is defined and also prohibited in international law. Many Congress members —some Republicans included — have expressed the same view.

Still, there was no apparent move to answer the calls by human rights groups for the responsible officials to face legal consequences.
Defying critics
Now, in openly acknowledging his lead role, Bush seems to be defying those critics. It is characteristic for him to do so with a bold stroke.

In response, the Center for Victims of Torture renewed its call for an independent nonpartisan commission to examine and report publicly on torture and cruel treatment of prisoners since Sept. 11, 2001. It said the commission should be adequately funded and given subpoena power as well as a mandate to fully examine the facts and circumstances of such abuses and to recommend measures to prevent future abuses.

The National Religious Campaign used stronger language, speaking in terms of criminal wrongdoing.

The religious group released a statement quoting extensively from a pledge the U.S. government made to the United Nations in 1999: “Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. Every act constituting torture under the Convention constitutes a criminal offence under the law of the United States. No official of the Government, federal, state or local, civilian or military, is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

In admitting to ordering waterboarding and other harsh treatments of detainees, Bush has admitted he violated U.S. law and international law too, Killmer said.

Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., in 2007.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

What will other countries do?
Bush has more to watch than the reaction from within the United States. The U.N.’s Convention Against Torture requires that all parties work to enforce its provisions. In other words, foreign nations would have legal grounds under international law to open fresh investigations of those responsible for the U.S. interrogation tactics at issue.

But, in making the bold acknowledgement, Bush must have presumed he would have the government’s backing in any confrontation with others’ courts, the Post reported, citing the views of M. Cherif Boussiani, an emeritus law professor at DePaul University who co-chaired the U.N. experts committee that drafted the torture convention.

Georgetown University law professor David Cole, a long-standing critic of Bush’s interrogation and detention policies, told the Post that any prosecution is unlikely.

“The fact that he did admit it suggests he believes he is politically immune from being held accountable,” Cole said.

“But politics can change,” he added.

Sharon Schmickle covers economics, agriculture, science and other subjects for MinnPost. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.