Bush, The Iraq War, and Torture: From Assessment to Accountability

At the Hofstra Conference on the George W. Bush Presidency, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman says one million died over the last decade in a country that the Bush administration said they were going to save

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: At the George W. Bush Presidential Conference at Hofstra University, several former Administration officials defended the legacy of the 43rd President and argued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were legally just and carried out in the best interest of the American people. However, there were a few dissenting voices. Among them was author and journalist Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now!

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AMY GOODMAN: 9/11 was clearly a defining moment. A horrific moment, when close to 3,000 people were incinerated in an instant. The question, though, was what did Iraq have to do with 9/11? If you ask yourself, as the last speaker suggested, what would you have done on September 12th — why would you attack a country that had nothing to do with this horrific attack on the United States?

Just today, a report has come out from the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. They’ve done some calculations. They released a report saying, “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has directly or indirectly killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan, 80,000 in Pakistan, a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further warzones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately ten times greater than that of which the public experts and decision makers are aware of, and propagated by the media and major NGOs, and this is only a conservative estimate,” they write. “The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”

One million deaths in Iraq in the last bit more than a decade. In a country the Bush administration said they were going to save. That would — as they famously said, Cheney and Rumsfeld — greet U.S. soldiers with flowers and sweets. As Vice President Cheney said, we are going to liberate the people of Iraq.

Sadly, the Bush administration exploited 9/11. The blueprint for what happened, and I think it’s important to go back even not so far in history, was drawn up years earlier by the Project for the New American Century. I’m reading from my first book, The Exception to the Rulers. That was called PNAC, a think tank formed in 1997 to, quote, “promote American global leadership,” unquote. Its founders are a who’s-who of the neoconservative movement, which seamlessly morphed into the top officials all over the Bush II administration. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney’s Chief of Staff, L. Scooter Libby. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Defense Policy Board member Richard Pearl. National Security Council staff member Eliott Abrams, among others.

The PNAC members had a reputation around Washington, explained Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst with twenty-seven years’ experience. As Misters Goff and Negroponte were talking about the Presidential daily brief — yes, Ray McGovern was one of those CIA analysts. He did it for Vice President George H. W. Bush. But he observed, “When we saw these people,” he’s talking about the PNAC members, “coming back in town, all of us said, ‘Oh my God, the crazies are back.’”. McGovern said their wild-eyed, geopolitical schemes would typically go right into the circular file.

In September 2000, PNAC issued a report that called upon the United States to dominate global resources. The key to realizing this was, quote, “Some catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor.” And so you have the allegations of weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq itself. The pretext for a larger scheme. According to PNAC, “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

And so on the morning of September 12th, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by declaring to Bush’s cabinet that the United States should immediately attack Iraq. It didn’t matter then or later that Iraq had no connection to Al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told Senior National Security Council staff, quote, “To think about how do you capitalize on these opportunities.” She compared the situation with 1945 to … 1945 to 1947, the start of the Cold War.

But not all people in the National Security Council felt the way that those administration officials did. Take Richard Clark. He’d advised President Reagan and George H. W. Bush on counter-terrorism. He was carried over to George W. Bush’s administration, his counter-terrorism czar, and also was with President Clinton. He was shocked when Rumsfeld, the day after, said we’ve got to look at Iraq. He was shocked when President Bush told him to look at Iraq.

One of the things he told CBS’s 60 Minutes: “I think when talking about President Bush, I think he’s done a terrible job against … on the war against terrorism.” Because he said months before the 9/11 attacks, he had warned the administration, we’ve got to look at Al-Qaeda. But to be told the day after the 9/11 attacks you must look at Iraq?

And think about it today. One million Iraqis dead.

But the Bush administration didn’t do it alone. They had a compliant press to amplify their allegations. The falsehoods. And that also has to be looked at. During the years of the Bush administration, where was the press? The White House propaganda blitz was launched on September 7th, 2002 at a Camp David press conference. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood side-by-side with President George W. Bush. Together they declared that evidence from a report published by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency showed that Iraq was six months away from building nuclear weapons. President Bush said, “I don’t know what more evidence we need.” Actually, any evidence would have helped.

There was no such IAEA report, but at the time, few mainstream American journalists questioned the leaders’ outright lies. Instead, the following day, so-called evidence popped up in the Sunday New York Times, under the twin byline of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller. They wrote, “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” This according to Bush administration officials, they wrote.

In a revealing example of how the story amplified administration spin, the authors included the phrase, soon to be repeated by President Bush and all his top officials, “The first sign of a smoking gun, administration officials argue, may be a mushroom cloud.” Harper’s publisher John McArthur, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War knew what to make of this front-page bombshell. He wrote, “in a disgraceful piece of stenography,” he wrote, “Gordon and Miller inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon.”

The Bush administration knew just what to do with the story they had fed to Gordon and Miller. The day the Times story ran, Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to advance the administration’s bogus claims. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney declared that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to make enriched uranium. It didn’t matter that the IAEA refuted the charge both before and after it was made, but Cheney did not want viewers just to take his word for it. He said, “There’s a story in the New York Times this morning, and I want to attribute the Times,” he said.

This was the classic disinformation two-step. The White House leaks a lie to the Times, the newspaper publishes it as a startling expose, and the White House conveniently masquerades behind the credibility of the New York Times. “What mattered,” wrote McArthur, “of the unencumbered rollout of a commercial for war.”

What matters now is that we had a media in this country that acted as a conveyor belt for the lies. And why does that matter? Is it just an academic exercise? Because the lies took and are taking lives. And that’s what we have to look at.But not all in the press were complicit. There were many on the front lines who were trying their hardest to get out the truth on the ground in Iraq.

Which takes us to the moment before the U.S. Marines pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. It was April 8th, 2003. You had a young reporter, who had just joined Al Jazeera in their Cairo – in their Baghdad offices. He went on the roof to set the camera, and he was killed when a U.S. helicopter strafed the building across the street. Abu Dhabi TV, the hosts, were shouting on the air, “Help us!” as they were being strafed.

Within a few hours, the Palestine Hotel became a target for the U.S. military. Now, all knew at that time that the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad was where well over one hundred unembedded journalists were staying. And they were working hard.

When the Abrams tank set their sights on the hotel and opened fire, they killed two reporters. Taras Protsyuk, of Reuters, was on his balcony, filming what was happening. It would about to be the fall of Baghdad. He was with Reuters. And then there was Jose Couso, on another balcony, also filming for Telecinco in Spain. Both of them were immediately killed, and many others were wounded on that day. That was April 8th, 2003.

Then you come to the summer. This is the summer of 2003. Mazandana, another Reuters videographer, one of their finest, was outside what would later become would-famous: Abu Ghraib. But not yet. He was there with a sound man, covering what was happening. They talked to U.S. soldiers, but within minutes he filmed his own death, as the U.S. soldiers attacked him. The sound man said, “We’d just been speaking with the soldiers.”

Later, a Pentagon spokesperson would say they accidentally, quote, “engaged” a cameraman.

Take this forward to the beginning January of 2004. Remember Esan Jordan. He was the head of CNN. Well, he was inadvertently caught on a microphone at the World Economic Forum, saying the U.S. military had targeted a dozen journalists who’d been killed in Iraq. There was a great firestorm, and ultimately he resigned after twenty-three years at CNN, not wanting CNN to become a target.

Journalists targeted in Iraq. And those are the journalists. Now I want to talk about the whistleblowers. The very brave people who step forward. For example, soldiers, who are horrified by what they saw. While the New York Times very much paved the way for war, they also published a few very good op-ed pieces, like Jameel Jaffer and Larry Seems’ piece honoring those who said no.

They began, “In January 2004, specialist Joseph M. Darby, a twenty-four year old army reservist in Iraq, discovered a set of photographs showing other members of his company torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The discovery anguished him, and he struggled over how to respond. He recalled later, “I had the choice between what I knew was morally right, and my loyalty to other soldiers. I couldn’t have it both ways,” he said. So he copied the photographs onto a CD, sealed it in an envelope, and delivered the envelope and an anonymous letter to the Army’s Criminal Investigation command. Three months later, seven years ago today,” they wrote, “the photographs were published. Specialist Darby soon found himself the target of death threats, but he had no regrets. Testifying at a pre-trial hearing for a fellow soldier, he said that the abuse, quote, “violated everything I personally believed in, and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.” ”

Yes, there are many brave people. People on the ground, soldiers, journalists, who did speak out. Sy Hersh, who published those photos in the New Yorker said –and they were horrific – said, “You actually haven’t seen the worst of them yet.”

So now let’s talk about what Mr. Goff and Mr. Negroponte didn’t talk about. The word “torture”. There is no doubt torture played a major role in the push for invading Iraq. And while the Senate report and other critics say torture produced false information, that could have been one of the program’s goals.

In 2009, McClatchy reported, “the Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees, in part to find evidence of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime.” A former U.S. intelligence official said, quote, “There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had. And when people kept coming up empty they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” this person said.

The Iraq-torture connection gets only bare mention in the Senate Intelligence Report, the executive summary which was released in December. But it’s still significant. In a footnote, the report cites the case of Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi. After U.S. forces sent him for torture in Egypt, Libi made up the false claim that Iraq provided training, and chemical and biological weapons, to Al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Colin Powell then used Libi’s statement in his famous February 5th, 2003 address to the UN Security Council. An address he would later call a stain on his career.

That speech at the UN, falsely alleging Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The Senate Report says, quote, “Libi later recanted the claim, claiming he’d been tortured, and only told them what he assessed that they wanted to hear.”

Torture. It is so important to talk about this today. What has gone on, and who should be held accountable. The Senate Intelligence Report, the executive summary was released in December, and It covered between 2002 and 2006. Even Senator John McCain, a man who himself was tortured in captivity as a POW in Vietnam, called for its release. Graphic new details of the post-9/11 U.S. torture program came to light in December, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released that five hundred-page summary of its investigation into the CIA with key parts redacted. The report concludes that the intelligence agency failed to disrupt a single plot despite torturing Al-Qaeda and other captives in secret prisons worldwide between 2002 and ’06, and details a list of torture methods used on prisoners, include waterboarding, sexual threats with broomsticks, medically unnecessary rectal feeding. The report also confirms the CIA ran black sites in Afghanistan, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Thailand, and a secret site on the Guantanamo naval base known as Strawberry Fields.

So far, no one involved in the CIA interrogation program has been charged with a crime, except for the whistleblower, John Kiriakou, who just came out of two years of prison, and is currently under house arrest.

Well, it is so important to assess the Bush administration, and I hope in a few years you’ll be doing the same for the Obama administration, as you have done in the past. Should President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and CIA officials be tried for torture? That is a very serious question.

A human rights group in Berlin has filed a criminal complaint against the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program, it’s called the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, accusing former Bush administration officials like CIA director George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld of war crimes, calling for an immediate investigation by a German prosecutor, the move following the release of the Senate report.

But it is not only international law groups that are calling for this. Yes, President Bush’s own counter-terrorism czar, Richard Clark, has called for the same. I want to congratulate Hofstra for holding this assessment of the Bush administration. But I think now, it has to go beyond assessment. And this is to a larger audience in this country and around the world. If we really care about national security, and being a model for the world of justice, it has to move from an assessment to an accounting, and to accountability. Thank you.

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