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Tuesday evening offered an unusual opportunity to question the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2001-2005), Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, at an alumni club dinner. He was eager to talk about his just-published memoir, Eyes on the Horizon (and I was able to scan through a copy during the cocktail hour).
Myers's presentation, like his book, was thin gruel. After his brief talk, he seemed intent on filibustering during a meandering Q & A session. He finally called on me since no other hands were up. Some were yawning, but it was too early to simply leave.
I introduced myself as a former Army intelligence officer and CIA analyst with combined service of almost 30 years. I thanked him for his stated opposition to interrogation techniques that go beyond "our interrogation manual"; and his conviction that "the Geneva Conventions were a fundamental part of our military culture"-both viewpoints emphasized in his book.
I then noted that the recently published Senate Armed Services Committee report, "Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody," sowed some doubt regarding the strength of his convictions.
Why, I asked, did Gen. Myers choose to go along in Dec. 2002 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized harsh interrogation techniques and, earlier, in Feb. 2002, when President George W. Bush himself issued an executive order arbitrarily denying Geneva protections to al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees?
I referred Gen. Myers to the Senate committee's finding that he had nipped in the bud an in-depth legal review of interrogation techniques, when all interested parties were eager for an authoritative ruling on their lawfulness. (The following account borrows heavily from the Senate committee report.)
Background: The summer of 2002 brought to interrogators at Guantanamo fresh guidance, plus new techniques adopted from the Korean War practices of Chinese Communist interrogators who had extracted false confessions from captured American troops.
On Aug. 1, 2002 a memo signed by the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee, stated that for an act to qualify as "torture":
--"Physical pain ... must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.
--"Purely mental pain or suffering ... must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years."
During the week of Sept. 16, 2002, a group of interrogators from Guantanamo flew to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for training in the use of these SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape) techniques, which were originally designed to help downed pilots withstand the regimen of torture employed by China. Now, SERE techniques were being "reverse engineered" and placed in the toolkit of U.S. military and CIA interrogators.
As soon as the Guantanamo interrogators returned from Fort Bragg, senior administration lawyers, including William "Jim" Haynes II (Department of Defense), John Rizzo (CIA), and David Addington (counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney), visited Guantanamo for consultations.
And, just to make quite sure there was no doubt about the new license given to interrogators, Jonathan Fredman, chief counsel to CIA's Counterterrorist Center, also arrived and gathered the Guantanamo staff together on Oct. 2, 2002, to resolve any lingering questions regarding unfamiliar aggressive interrogation techniques, like waterboarding.
Fredman stressed, "The language of the statutes is written vaguely." He repeated Bybee's Aug. 1 guidance and summed up the legalities in this way: "It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong."