Cheney’s Campaign To Keep Lawmakers In Line On Torture

June 3, 2009 8:11 a.m.

The Washington Post reports today that, during 2005, Dick Cheney sat in on several of those CIA torture briefings, in an effort to persuade wavering lawmakers to keep backing the torture program.

The news doesn’t really come as a shock — indeed, some close observers had already guessed that the then-veep was involved in the briefings. But it does add to the picture of Cheney embarking during the middle years of the Bush administration on a focused, stealthy campaign to make sure the US didn’t give up what he saw as its right to torture.There’s evidence that Cheney’s efforts paid off by keeping GOP members in line on torture. For instance, according to the Post, the first briefing in which Cheney was involved occurred in March 2005 — two days after the New York Times ran a detailed report on harsh interrogation techniques. One of the lawmakers briefed, Senate Intelligence chair Pat Roberts, had at the time been indicating he might support calls for an investigation of the techniques used on high-level detainees. But it looks like just two days after sitting down with the veep, Roberts announced his opposition to such a probe.

And at another briefing, this one in October 2005, Cheney tried to persuade Sen. John McCain to back off an amendment that aimed to ban practices like waterboarding, and that had broad support in the Senate. (In the end, the measure passed, though in a weakened form.)

This all jibes with what we know about those classified CIA memos which Cheney claims will, if declassified, show that harsh interrogation techniques produced intelligence that saved lives. Those memos, we now know, were dated July 13, 2004, and June 1, 2005.

As former TPMmuckraker Spencer Ackerman has pointed out, those dates are significant.

OK, July 13, 2004. What had happened then? Two important developments. First, in May, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson had completed his review of how the interrogation program worked in practice, a still-classified document that appears to have found the agency had exceeded the boundaries demarcated for it by the 2002 Office of Legal Counsel memo that gave the program legal sanction. And second, in June, the new OLC chief, Jack Goldsmith, revoked that 2002 memoranda, which sent Cheney legal adviser David Addington into a sputtering rage.


Next, June 1, 2005. No, not merely a birthday present for me. That’s the day after new OLC chief Steven Bradbury had released the final of his three May 2005 memos that reauthorized the CIA’s interrogation program — rulings that found, among other things, that waterboarding (which the CIA says it had not performed since 2003) did not cause “severe physical pain.” All the memos, taken together, determined the CIA’s interrogation program was, in every material respect, legal. But it’s likely that Cheney recognized this wouldn’t be the end of the debate on torture — either internally, or with Congress and the Courts. Having material from the CIA — especially a CIA helmed by his ally, Porter Goss — arguing for the need for the program’s continuation would be powerful ammunition for any bureaucratic fight.

In other words, the evidence suggests that Cheney commissioned those memos at specific times in order to bolster his position in fighting efforts to crack down on torture. And today’s report in the Post suggests another element of Cheney’s campaign — directly lobbying key lawmakers, at critical times, about what he saw as the vital importance of the program.

Of course, Senators Carl Levin and Russ Feingold have both said they’ve seen the CIA memos at issue, and that they don’t support Cheney’s claim that enhanced interrogation got results. Rather, said Levin, they discuss the program for high-value detainees as a whole, which included harsh techniques but also other methods.

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