Over the past few years, as the revelations about the torturing of detainees have built up, a narrative of what happens seems to have emerged. It goes something like this:
Vice President Dick Cheney was both shocked by 9/11 and saw it as an opportunity to implement radical elements of his own agenda. Therefore, he got the CIA and other elements of the government to step up its already active rendition programme, add a detention and torture programme of its own and, we now find, go around the world assassinating people. He also arranged legal cover for all this by getting mid-level people at the Justice Department like John Yoo to sign off on it, under pressure from Cheney’s counsel David Addington.
I think that this has pretty much become the entrenched narrative not only on what you might call “the left,” but also in the establishment. Nobody really argues it wasn’t Cheney’s idea any more, some people just argue it was his idea, but he shouldn’t be prosecuted for it. However, I’m not so sure.
This narrative is persuasive, as Cheney clearly did use 9/11 as an opportunity to push though other items on his agenda, such as enhanced executive power and greater government secrecy. However, Cheney had a record of supporting these two causes going back decades. He had repeatedly spoken and written about them, and tried to implement them when he was in government. On the question of torture, however, as far as I can see he was completely silent before 9/11. The first comment I can find that can be interpreted as supporting it was his “dark side” moment on Meet the Press five days after the attacks.
Here’s the timeline we have for Cheney, containing well over 500 events in his career. There is really not that much there about involvement in covert action before 9/11, and when he did get involved, such as during the Iran-Contra investigation, it seems to have been more to protect what he thought was the president’s rightful executive authority. Obviously, there must be plenty of things Cheney has done that are not in the timeline, but I think that if he had been a strong supporter of torture before 9/11, we would probably have noticed it by now.
Here’s another problem for the current narrative: the SERE-style torture techniques did not work. Instead of producing accurate threat reporting, the tortured detainees came out with a stream of meaningless crap, which is pretty much what had always happened when these techniques were used (at least if they were not applied immediately after capture). The fact that the reverse-engineered SERE techniques did not produce and were not intended to produce accurate information was not exactly a secret in 2001. Every vaguely politically-aware person knew that the KGB and their surrogates had tortured people and that these people then read out ridiculous false confessions at show trials and elsewhere.
Here’s a question: was Cheney really so stupid as to believe torturing people weeks, months after their capture was going to produce accurate information? Why would he believe that? Where would he get that from? Just because he believed in secrecy and lax regulation for big business, does not automatically make him a supporter of ineffective intelligence-gathering techniques. One can quite easily be reckless about the environment and not want detainees to be tortured.
So what’s the alternative? We do timelines because we think they help solve problems like this, so I went to our torture timeline and flicked through it. In the weeks following 9/11 there was a lot of legal work that laid the groundwork for military commissions, increased use of rendition and general abuse of detainees, although not really the systematic abuse that came in later. As far as I can see, the first detainee subjected to systematic torture was radical Islamist training camp facilitator Abu Zubaida, who was captured in March 2002 and whose interrogation began the next month. The way I see it, whoever got the SERE people involved in Abu Zubaida, the systematic torture programme was their idea. Question is: who was that?