Dick Cheney's Ten Year War on Truth

August 31, 2011

Amnesty activists protest Cheney's memoir at Department of State
Amnesty activists present Cheney's memoir as evidence of war crimes to the Department of Justice on August 30th. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday former Vice-President Richard ‘Dick’ Cheney published his memoirs, In My Time, and, as widely expected, he has used this new platform to restate his wholehearted support for some of the most egregious human rights abuses committed by the Bush administration.

We thought it might be instructive to examine some of the claims he makes in his memoirs and see how well they stack up against the established facts.

In an interview with CNN in June 2005 Dick Cheney spun a rosy picture of conditions in Guantanamo:

“We spent a lot of money to build it. They’re very well treated there. They’re living in the tropics. They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want.”

The one thing you can’t fault the former Vice President on is his consistency. He continues to view Guantanamo as a model prison describing it in his memoirs as a “humane” facility that “likely provides a standard of care higher than many prisons in European countries where criticism of Guantanamo has been louder.”

Since January 2002, eight inmates have died while in custody in Gitmo. Six of these deaths have been declared suicides. Hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay are known to have engaged in hunger strikes at the prison to protest the conditions in which they are being held and their open-ended confinement without trial.

Moreover, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s November 2008 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody revealed that high value detainees Mohammed Al Khatani and Mohammedou Wali Slahi were subjected to a program of “degradation” and “religious disgrace” in Gitmo that would comfortably rise to the level of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment outlawed by the Convention Against Torture.

Cheney continues to oppose closing Guantanamo writing that, by the time he left office, the detainees still held in the camp were “among the worst of the worst.” Once again, Cheney doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. In fact, slightly over half of the current inmates in Guantanamo – 87 of the 171 still held there – have already been cleared for release.

Amnesty believes that 770 individuals have been held at Guantanamo since it opened in 2002. The overwhelming majority have been released without charge – 525 of them by the Bush administration alone. Some were held for years.

We also know, courtesy of Detainee Assessment Briefs obtained by Wikileaks, that the Bush administration knew pretty quickly that at least 150 Gitmo inmates had no demonstrable connection whatsoever to Al Qaeda or the Taliban but held on to them anyway.

Lives were ruined but you won’t find any evidence in the pages of this memoir that the author suffers from any pangs of conscience as a result.

Incredibly, Cheney even has the barefaced cheek to claim that he is far from convinced that the existence of Guantanamo handed Al Qaeda a powerful recruitment tool, noting that it was mentioned in only 3 of 34 statements issued by senior Al Qaeda figures in 2009-2010.

Setting aside for a moment that the former Vice-President has chosen a selection of statements from a period in which most of the world believed that President Obama was sincerely trying to close Guantanamo, this claim borders on the delusional. And, of course, it is misleading. Al Qaeda mentioned Gitmo 32 times in its propaganda messages between 2003 and 2010, and its affiliate groups cited it 26 times.

Cheney famously told radio host Scott Hennen in 2006 that authorizing waterboarding was “a no-brainer.” In his memoir, Cheney cites the views of two former POWs held by the North Vietnamese that waterboarding was “harsh treatment but not torture” as a direct rebuttal to the criticism made of the practice by another former POW, Senator John McCain.

Whether waterboarding is torture is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of law, and waterboarding – or simulated drowning – has consistently been treated unambiguously as torture under both international and U.S. jurisprudence.

At the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, Japanese officials were convicted of torturing captured U.S. pilots by subjecting them to waterboarding.

In 1983 Texas sheriff James Parker, and three of his deputies, waterboarded several suspects in an effort to elicit confessions from them. Parker was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison for his actions and the judge presiding over the case repeatedly described waterboarding unambiguously as torture in his judgment.

Enlisting the services of a tame lawyer to produce an interpretation of existing jurisprudence that would not pass muster at a third tier law school does not make something legal. Interestingly enough, neither John Yoo nor Jay Bybee rates a mention in Cheney’s memoirs.

Since leaving office, Cheney has consistently maintained that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” prevented terrorist attacks.  He returns to this theme in his memoir, disingenuously conflating material gathered in non-coercive interrogations with advances he claims derived from the use of coercive measures.

Many of those present (and not hiding in an undisclosed location) when enhanced interrogation techniques were first introduced have testified that such techniques actually impeded investigations, elicited false information and attracted more recruits to Al Qaeda.

If you want to get the facts, read the memoirs of those who actually served on the ground in counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – like USAF interrogator Matthew Alexander, CIA officer Glenn Carle and FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan.

Speaking at Fordham University in March 2010, Michael Sulick, then head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, told the audience, “I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint” because of President Obama’s decision to outlaw all interrogation methods not compatible with the U.S. Army Field Manual. He ought to know.

Perhaps the biggest falsehood of all comes in the glib consideration Cheney gives to the abuses committed in Abu Ghraib. Cheney recalls being appalled when he was first shown the now infamous photographs commenting:

“The behaviour recorded in them was cruel and disgraceful and certainly not reflective of US Policy.”

Really? The individuals who committed these acts thought they were carrying out U.S. policy – a policy crafted at the urging of Dick Cheney that allowed waterboarding, the use of dogs and phobias, stripping, walling, stress positions and learned compliance.

But don’t take my word for it – take the word of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

“[The] authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in US military custody.”

Cheney wraps up his comments on the Abu Ghraib scandal by stating: “Ultimately those responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib were reprimanded, relieved of duty, and, where appropriate, prosecuted.”

That is not the view of the Senate Armed Services Committee and it should be the position of the Department of Justice. Dick Cheney was one of the principal architects of a policy that amounted to torture and the fact that he is able to boast about this program with impunity is a national scandal.

Amnesty International's anti-torture protesters hound Cheney on Book Tour. Above is closing shot from the August 30th Today Show.