25 September 2008

Condoleezza Rice at High-Level Torture Meetings in the White House

Could somebody smarter than I am please tell me what this pair of articles mean, exactly? At The Public Record, Jason Leopold published this: "Rice Admits She Led High-Level White House Talks About Torture." And at WaPo today, there's this: "Top Officials Knew in 2002 of Harsh Interrogations."

I've been puzzling it out over the past 45 minutes or so, and I can't decide if these are big news or not. They're not getting much airtime for all the concern over the economic crisis and the hooplah about John McCain's latest campaign stunt, but the pieces strike me as noteworthy.

As far as I can tell, the big deal is that documents released last night by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin put Condi Rice in the room in the White House when torture meetings took place. This is the first confirmation that a cabinet official was in on the meetings. At issue is whether or not either George W. Bush or Dick Cheney were there as well. Rice didn't offer, and, interestingly, Levin didn't ask. I find the latter point telling, but can't exactly identify why.

Does Levin have an investigative ace up his sleeve? Or is there simply nothing to be gained by pressing after the executive on this?

Also at issue, Rice's involvement, and her specific naming of Rumsfeld and Ashcroft as present in the room (both now conveniently absent from the administration), undermines previous suggestions that any acts of torture or questionable conduct were pressed and carried out by a "few bad apples." Hard to imagine the president referring to his key advisors as a "few bad apples."

Another question raised in the articles seems to revolve around the specific dates of the meetings, and whether they facilitated the use of extreme interrogation measures against detainees before the release of the famous John Yoo "Torture Memo" on August 1, 2002. That memo provided the administration with a legal basis to consider as torture only acts that resulted in organ failure or death, thus permitting waterboarding, stress positions, temperature changes and sleep deprivation, among other tactics, to be approved as appropriate interrogation methods.

During the meetings, Rice and others discussed whether to use interrogation tactics against detainees that U.S. soldiers were specifically taught to endure should they be captured across enemy lines.

How does this all add up? I'm embarrassed to say that I'm waiting for someone to spell it out for me. Certainly, White House lawyers have reviewed anything Rice submitted to the committee, so I doubt that there are any stunning surprises here. Still, this steady trickle of information continues to leak out, further eroding any credibility the White House may pretend to have. Hearings are scheduled for today, but assume those will be drowned out by even the most banal developments in the reality soap opera that is the presidential campaign. We should all keep an eye out, however, to see where this goes next.