Who Ordered the Torture of Abu Zubaydah?
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For the defendants of the use of torture by U.S. forces -- still led by former Vice President Dick Cheney -- this has been a rocky few weeks, with the publication, in swift succession, of the leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross ( PDF), based on interviews with the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, which concluded that their treatment “constituted torture” (and was accompanied by two detailedarticles by Mark Danner for the New York Review of Books ), the release, by the Justice Department, of four memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in 2002 and 2005, which purported to justify the use of torture by the CIA, and the release of a 231-page investigation into detainee abuse conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee ( PDF.)
The publication of the full Senate Committee report was delayed for four months, subject to wrangling over proposed redactions, but the Executive Summary, published last December, had already successfully demolished the Bush administration’s claims that detainee abuse could be blamed on “a few bad apples,” and, instead, blamed it on senior officials who, with the slippery exception of Dick Cheney, included George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, former Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Justice Department legal adviser John Yoo, former Guantánamo commanders Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq.
Much of the fallout from the release of these memos and reports has, understandably, focused on the inadequacy of the legal advice offered to the CIA for its “high-value detainee” program by the OLC, whose lawyers have the unique responsibility of interpreting the law as it relates to the powers of the executive branch, and whose advice, therefore, provided the Bush administration with what it regarded as a “golden shield,” which would prevent senior officials from being prosecuted for war crimes. However, if it can be shown that the OLC’s advice was not only inadequate, but also tailored to specific requests from senior officials, then it may be that the “golden shield” will turn to dust.
This threat to the “golden shield” probably explain why Dick Cheney’s scaremongering has been shriller than usual in the last few weeks, but what has largely been overlooked to date is another question that poses even weightier challenges for the former administration: if the use of torture techniques on Abu Zubaydah, the first supposedly significant “high-value detainee” captured by the US (on March 28, 2002), was authorized by two OLC memos issued on August 1, 2002, then who authorized the torture to which he was subjected in the 18 weeks between his capture and the moment that Jay S. Bybee, the head of the OLC, added his signature to the OLC memos?
It’s clear that the major reason this question has been overlooked is because, as the ICRC report reveals, Zubaydah was not subjected to waterboarding (an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning) until after the memo was issued, but what is also apparent is that the treatment to which he was subjected before the waterboard was introduced also “constituted torture.”
Zubaydah was severely wounded during his capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, to the extent that, as President Bush explained in a press conference in September 2006, shortly after Zubaydah and 13 other “high-value detainees” had been transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons, “he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA.” We don’t know if there is any truth to the allegation, made by Ron Suskind in his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, that medication was only administered in exchange for his cooperation (it seems likely, but has been officially denied), but we do know, from James Risen’s book State of War , that when CIA director George Tenet told the President that Zubaydah had been put on pain medication to deal with the injuries he sustained during capture, Bush asked Tenet, “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?” which prompted Risen to wonder whether the President was “implicitly encouraging” Tenet to order the harsh treatment of a prisoner “without the paper trail that would have come from a written presidential authorization.”