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Growing Blowback for Bush Torture Team

March 29, 2009

The past 48 hours have not been kind to the architects of the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture. In the UK, British police are investigating whether its MI5 intelligence service was complicit in the torture of former Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohammed. Meanhile, a Spanish court is poised to launch a criminal probe of Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and four other Bush administration officials over their roles in crafting the legal framework condoning U.S. torture. And in a devastating piece in Sunday's Washington Post, Americans learned that the waterboarding of Bush all-star terror detainee Abu Zubaida "foiled no plots" and "produced false leads."
As the Post first detailed in December 2007, the CIA and FBI clashed over Abu Zubaida and whether he was, as President Bush claimed, "al-Qaeda's chief of operations." In the wake of his capture in March 2002, it was only harsh interrogation methods, President Bush insisted in 2006, which yielded actionable information for American intelligence agencies:

"We knew that Zubaida had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures."

18 months later, the FBI's skepticism regarding Abu Zubaida's significance and handling has mushroomed into a growing scandal. While one counterrorism official asked "how anyone can minimize that information" obtained from Zubaida, the Post's interviews with others reached a different conclusion about the "high value captive":

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Complicating matters for the new Obama administration is the question of what to do next with Zubaida. He "was never charged in a military commission in Guantanamo Bay, but some U.S. officials are pushing to have him charged now with conspiracy." Even more than reopening the debate as to whether the supposed "trusted associate" of Bin Laden was instead "a veritable travel agent for jihadists" who "operated in a public world of Internet transactions and ticket agents, government officials worry that a trial could produce revelations of U.S. interrogations tactics and ultimately, Zubaida's acquittal:

Others in the U.S. government, including CIA officials, fear the consequences of taking a man into court who was waterboarded on largely false assumptions, because of the prospect of interrogation methods being revealed in detail and because of the chance of an acquittal that might set a legal precedent. Instead, they would prefer to send him to Jordan.

While the Obama White House is still wrestling with how to proceed on the Zubaida case and the disposition of 245 other detainees still being held at Gitmo, key figures from the Bush administration are now facing the first in what could be a wave of international legal actions over potential war crimes.
In Spain, Judge Baltasar Garzon, the same magistrate who ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, is investigating possible violations of international law by the legal team which justified President Bush's program of detainee torture. One official close to the case deemed it "highly probable" that Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Douglas Feith, William Haynes, David Addington and- the key figures from the Bush White House, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel, the Pentagon and the Dick Cheney's office - would face subsequent arrest warrants.
As Harper's Scott Horton noted, the inquiry dates back to 2006 and arose in the case of a Spanish citizen allegedly tortured by the United States:

The case was opened in the Spanish national security court, the Audencia Nacional. In July 2006, the Spanish Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a former Spanish citizen who had been held in Guantánamo, labeling the regime established in Guantánamo a "legal black hole." The court forbade Spanish cooperation with U.S. authorities in connection with the Guantánamo facility. The current criminal case evolved out of an investigation into allegations, sustained by Spain's Supreme Court, that the Spanish citizen had been tortured in Guantánamo.

As the New York Times noted, any issuance of arrest warrants might be "more symbolic than practical, and that it was a near certainty that the warrants would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States."
That prospect, however unlikely, follows recent speculation that George W. Bush might find himself before the International Criminal Court. But while that development is even more remote, Still, as human rights lawyer and Torture Team author Philippe Sands has suggested, George W. Bush and his administration lawyers should think twice before they travel abroad in the future.
UPDATE: Appearing on CNN, General David Petraeus disagreed with Dick Cheney's claim that President Obama's rejection of Team Bush's torture techniques made America less safe.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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