Mr. Cheney, You Did Not Keep Us Safe

If 3,000 Americans had been killed on your watch, in an attack that could have been prevented, perhaps you'd be a little hesitant to accuse anyone else of endangering America.
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If 3,000 Americans had been killed on your watch, in an attack that could have been prevented, perhaps you'd be a little hesitant to accuse anyone else of endangering America. And if you had advocated torture, and the torture produced false information that you used to mislead America into an unwise, unjust and unwarranted war, you might be a tad sheepish about defending the use of torture.

Not Dick Cheney. Mr. Cheney has stepped up his attack on Pres. Obama's security strategy, telling CBS's Bob Schieffer that Obama's refusal to use waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture) endangers American lives.

The truth is the Bush-Cheney policies did not keep us safe, and Mr. Cheney is not a credible spokesman on issues of national security.

First, this awkward fact. When it came time to risk his hide to serve our country during the Vietnam War, Cheney got five draft deferments. He later told the Senate, "I had other priorities in the sixties than military service." John Kerry did not. Nor did John McCain. Nor Gen. Colin Powell, nor Gen. Jim Jones, nor Gen. Wes Clark, nor Jim Webb. These warriors - and so many others - strongly oppose the use of torture. They were willing to die to protect America. It is insulting for a doughy draft dodger like Mr. Cheney to suggest they would endanger us today.

Indeed, the public record offers evidence that torture has endangered American security. Not only by breeding more terrorists, but by producing false intelligence - which Mr. Cheney and President Bush used to mislead America into invading Iraq.

The case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi is instructive. Al-Libi was a senior al Qaeda operative captured trying to make his way out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. In US custody, he initially said he knew of no connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, and, according to Newsweek, "he had difficulty even coming up with a story about the relationship between the two." An FBI agent urged that al-Libi be read his rights and be treated with respect, "as a shining example of what we feel is right." There was a practical, as well as moral, reason not to torture al-Libi: veteran interrogators believe establishing a rapport with a prisoner is the key to obtaining actionable intelligence. There are reports that, after hours of bonding with his FBI interrogator through discussions of religion, al-Libi provided useful information about alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" who was arrested just before 9-11.

But even after the bonding experience, al-Libi continued to deny a link between Iraq and al Qaeda. He was rendered to Egypt, where he faced certain torture. "You're going to Cairo, you know," a CIA agent reportedly told al-Libi at the airport. "Before you get there I'm going to find your mother and I'm going to f*** her."

So much for building rapport.

In Egypt, al-Libi was placed in a coffin-sized box for 17 hours, then beaten. Al-Libi cracked. He gave the information Cheney and his crowd most wanted: a direct link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Al-Libi, (who reportedly died this week in Libya), said Iraq had provided al Qaeda with training in the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Bingo! Vice President Cheney and others cited the information to justify the war in Iraq. Trouble is, it turned out to be false. As early as February, 2002 - just two months after al-Libi's "confession" -- the Defense Intelligence Agency reported to the White House and the National Security Council that it had doubts about al-Libi's charge. The DIA's Defense Intelligence Terrorism Summary (DITSUM) all but destroyed al-Libi's credibility. The report said, in part:

"However, he (al-Libi) lacks specific details on the Iraqis involved, the CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) materials associated with the assistance, and the location where training occurred. It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.

"Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control." (Emphasis added.)

The timing here matters. In December, 2001 al-Libi, under torture, claims Iraq trained al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. Two months later, the Pentagon's intelligence agency says he was probably lying. And yet on September 25, 2002, Condoleezza Rice continued to spread the myth, telling PBS's The News Hour, "We know too that several of the (al Qaeda) detainees, in particular, some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical weapons development." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, President Bush and several other leading Administration officials kept banging the al-Libi drum.

In January 2003, the CIA joined the chorus of skepticism about al-Libi's claim that Iraq trained al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons, noting al-Libi "was not in a position to know if any training had taken place."

More than a year and a half after al-Libi's claim was discredited by the DIA, and nine months after it was poo-pooed by the CIA, Dick Cheney was still sighting it as Gospel, appearing on Meet the Press on the week of September 11, 2003 and telling Tim Russert, "We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW [biological weapons] and CW [chemical weapons], that al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved."

It may well be that torture was used to advance the Bush-Cheney march to war in Iraq rather than to obtain intelligence about al Qaeda plots against the American homeland. A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue told McClatchy Newspapers, "Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies." Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

Next, consider this inconvenient truth: 9-11 happened on Mr. Cheney's watch. Tom Kean, the Republican co-chair of the 9-11 Commission, has said the attacks could have been prevented. He's right. That fact ought to weigh heavy on Mr. Cheney's conscience. As should these:

  • Before they took office, senior Bush administration officials were briefed repeatedly about the al Qaeda threat. Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told incoming National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, "I believe that the Bush administration will spend more time on terrorism in general, and on al Qaeda specifically, than any other subject.''
  • Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief under both Clinton and Bush, presented the new Bush-Cheney administration with a plan to roll back al Qaeda. He briefed Dr. Rice on the plan. Nothing. In February, 2001, he briefed Vice President Cheney on the plan. Nothing. Time magazine has reported, "Some counterterrorism officials think there is another reason for the Bush administration's dilatory response. Clarke's paper, says an official, "'was a Clinton proposal.'" If true, Bush and Cheney were allowing partisan politics to endanger America.
  • On May 8, 2001 - three months after being briefed by Clarke - Cheney was instructed to chair a task force on terrorism. It did not meet before the 9-11 attacks.
  • The FBI asked the Bush-Cheney Justice Department for58 million to beef up its domestic counterrorism capacity by hiring more translators, more field agents and more analysts. The Bush-Cheney Administration told the FBI no.
  • Congressional Democrats sought to shift 800 million in the Pentagon budget from Star Wars (the Bush-Cheney faith-based missile defense system) into counterterrorism. The Bush-Cheney administration threatened to veto the entire defense budget. Congressional Republicans sided with Bush and Cheney, and blocked the Democrats from transferring the funds.
  • In July, 2001, an FBI agent in Phoenix reported that Middle Eastern men - possibly al Qaeda - were taking flying lessons. He suggested that al Qaeda operatives might be trying to infiltrate the US civil aviation system. His warning was not acted on.
  • On August 6, 2001 Pres. Bush received a classified briefing, the President's Daily Brief. On that day, the headline blared: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, Bush told the briefer, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." Dick Cheney, who has called the President's Daily Brief "the family jewels," presumably received the same briefing. Neither Bush nor Cheney acted on it. The "family jewels" were pearls before swine.

And the attack came. Over three thousand Americans were killed. In the heartache and rage that followed, Bush and Cheney instituted their "enhanced interrogation techniques." Uncovering a pending plot against the homeland was, doubtless, an important motivator. But the al-Libi case is a cautionary one. Rather than finding a ticking time bomb, the al-Libi torture may have been used to build a spurious case for war - a war that has weakened America.

Perhaps what's most galling about Mr. Cheney is how, without irony, humility or apology, he holds himself out as someone who has protected America when in fact he shirked his responsibility before 9-11 and misled us into war after. The closest Dick Cheney has ever come to fighting for America is when he shot his lawyer in the face.

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