Cowardice in the Time of Torture
By Ray McGovern
April 5, 2009
I used to take a certain pride by association with prominent Bronxites who
have “made it.” Cancel that for Attorney General Eric Holder and
former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
You might think that as African-Americans, they would be especially outraged
by torture, given what blacks have suffered at the hands of white torturers
in this country and abroad.
Why is it that they seem to value more their admittance into a privileged white-dominated
ruling class than doing the right thing? How else to explain their stunning
reluctance to hold torturers accountable and thus remove the stain of torture
from our nation’s soul and reputation?
One might say that Attorney General Holder is proving himself to be part of
that “nation of cowards” that he called the United States in a different
context, i.e. our unwillingness to address the issue of race. What about when
the victims of torture are Muslims? Where’s Holder’s courage then?
Surely, I was not the only one stunned by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s
public admission that he helped authorize waterboarding of detainees. But, on
reflection, there seems to have been a method to his madness; and, so far at
least, the method seems to be working.
Have Holder and Colin Powell forgotten from their days growing up in the Bronx
the typical reaction of bullies when caught in the act? “Okay, so waddaya
gonna do ’bout it!” It was an attempt at intimidation, and it was
generally effective with those who felt not quite up to the challenge.
Looks very much as if Cheney sized up Holder correctly. During his confirmation
hearings, Holder manfully agreed with Sen. Patrick Leahy that waterboarding,
which subjects a person to the panicked gag reflex of drowning, is torture.
But Holder has been out to lunch since then, no doubt leaving Cheney and his
torture-friendly friends smirking at having been correct in taking the measure
of the new Attorney General. Call it chutzpah, intimidation, bullying —
whatever; it does seem to be working.
Cheney endorsing waterboarding; Holder labeling it torture; and — Hello?
Anyone home? Deafening silence.
Never mind that Holder, like President Barack Obama, took a solemn oath to
faithfully execute the laws of the land. Why are they still afraid of Dick Cheney,
whom even the neo-con editors of the Washington Post in 2005 branded “Vice
President for Torture?”
Holder seems to be taking his cue from the pitiable Colin Powell, now traversing
the country giving lucrative speeches on leadership. Powell knew he was welcome
into the club, or in this case the White House, only as long as he toed the
line and was willing to offer up what was left of his reputation to the Bush/Cheney
True, in one brief spurt of behind-the-scenes assertiveness, Powell insisted
that arch-prevaricator (and former CIA director) George Tenet sit behind him
during Powell’s unforgettable/unforgivable speech at the UN on Feb. 5,
Could he have been so unaware as to think this might somehow shame the shameless
Tenet into coming clean with the intelligence?
No way; and he knew it. Powell had already confided to then-British Foreign
Secretary Jack Straw that the case against Iraq was what in the Bronx we call
I know Powell. In the early 1980s, when he wore but one star as military assistant
to the Secretary of Defense — and I was a CIA intelligence briefer —
I used to do him the courtesy of pre-briefing him, to the extent I could, on
what I was about to discuss during my early-morning one-on-ones with his boss,
Casper Weinberger. I found Powell to be anything but naïve.
He and I had a good bit in common — growing up at about the same time
a mile from each other in the Bronx, “Distinguished Military Graduates”
commissioned via Army R.O.T.C. — he from City College in 1958, I from
Fordham in 1961.
Initially, I was blissfully unaware of the many times he had compromised himself
— in doing Weinberger’s bidding on Iran-Contra, for example. And
so in 1989, I took a certain pride by association when Powell made it to the
very top as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That pride dissipated quickly as I watched Powell bend to those who were bent
on launching a war of aggression on Iraq. Republican elder statesman James Baker,
who was secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, has referred to Powell as
the one person who could have stopped that war. Baker is right.
Caving on Torture
More to the point, Colin Powell betrayed the U.S. Army and the nation on the
issue of torture.
When he got a whiff of the tortured reasoning for torture — being urged
on the President by the likes of Alberto Gonzales and David Addington to somehow
make torture “legal” — Powell took the coward’s way
He had his lawyer get in touch with the Mafia-type lawyers in the White House
to ask them please, could they please ask the President to reconsider his decision
to exempt al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the protections of the Geneva Convention
on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Powell’s gentle demurral appears in a MEMORANUM FOR THE PRESIDENT, dated
Jan. 25, 2002, drafted by Addington but signed by Gonzales. They included Powell’s
argument in a paragraph at the bottom of a list of “negative” consequences
of ignoring Geneva:
“A determination that Geneva does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban
could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest
standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty
in the status of adversaries.”
Powell got that right. Too bad he did not have the courage of his convictions.
Too bad he lacked the guts to confront the President directly. Too bad, for
he is perhaps the one person who could have stopped the torture and the debasement
of the Army to which he owed so much.
Rather than put into play the wide respect he still enjoyed, in order to stop
a war he knew to be illegal, Powell decided to trade in that respect for the
equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.
As the Executive Summary of the Senate Armed Services Committee report on torture,
released on Dec. 12, 2008, indicates, President Bush threw in his lot with the
early opinions of Addington and Gonzales.
(What most folks don’t realize is that this was long before everyone’s
favorite bête noire John Yoo and associates served up their ex post facto
Incorporating Addington’s language, the President signed an executive
order on Feb. 7 that, in the words of the Senate committee, “opened the
door” to torture.
Powell not only acquiesced in this but also allowed himself to be sucked into
a series of discussions in the White House Situation Room regarding which torture
techniques might be most appropriate to apply to which “high-value”
Those are the sessions that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft referred to
in commenting, “history will not be kind” to us.
What brings this painful flashback to mind is Rachel Maddow’s interview
with Colin Powell on April 2. Not surprisingly, he danced around her questions
about the White House seminars on torture. Most telling of all, however, Powell
could not bring himself to admit, even now, that waterboarding is torture.
On April 3, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the
fabulous fabricator of the fabled Saddam-al-Qaeda connection, upped the ante
in the “so-wattaya-gonna-do-’bout-it” challenge, and held
up to ridicule the timidity of Holder and the President.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Feith pretended to be shocked at the temerity
of a Spanish court that seems to be on the verge of bringing criminal charges
against Feith, Gonzales, Addington, John Yoo, and two other lawyers who served
up the desired opinions on how the White House could make an end-run around
domestic and international law and approve the systematic torture of detainees.
Disregarding the provisions of international law that clearly do apply, Feith
makes liberal use of reductio ad absurdum to “prove” that Spain
has no jurisdiction to put Americans on trial for torture.
More important, Feith is so cocksure of himself that he throws down the gauntlet
at the feet of the new administration: “If President Barack Obama and
the prosecutors see a crime to be prosecuted, they can act.”
What, I wonder, gives Feith such confidence that he will not one day rue having
said that? Has it been his watching of a long line of timid officials —
both Republicans and Democrats — who lack the courage of their convictions?
Clearly, the Cheneys and Feiths of this world are betting on Obama being cut
of the same cloth. The President will prove them right if it turns out that
his oft-repeated “No one is above the law” proves to be just rhetoric.
And it will remain just rhetoric, if Obama delays much longer in ordering the
reluctant Holder to appoint a nonpartisan, independent special prosecutor to
bring the torturers to justice and end this shameful chapter in American history
once and for all.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical
Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was a CIA analyst for many
years and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals
for Sanity (VIPS).