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Countering a Tortured Argument Revisited

Now that Attorney General nominee Micheal Mukasey has sailed through a Senate Judiciary Committee vote, a full Senate vote on his nomination could come as soon as this week where it is expected he will be approved. One hopes that my argument against those who countenance torture will be part of the floor debate but there is also another argument for why torture is not only morally wrong but also dangerous for our foreign policy: false confessions.

Few but the most meticulous of wonks will recall the story of Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, an Al-Qaeda operative whose allegations of a link between the terrorist organization and the government of Saddam Hussein were eventually used to justify the ouster of the Iraqi regime. That he later recanted his story was of little consequence since the damage had already been done and the US was deeply entrenched in a war which rages to this day.

ABC's The Blotter now reports that al Libi, who has since mysteriously disappeared, was subjected to harsh treatment at the hands of the Egyptian government, seemingly for no other reason than to elicit the "right" confession.
In one such six-foot-by-10-foot cell in February 2004, equipped with a low mattress and a bucket as a toilet, sat a man in shackles named Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, the former al Qaeda camp commander described by former CIA director George Tenet in his autobiography last year as "the highest ranking al-Qa'ida member in U.S. custody" just after 9/11.

In this secret facility known to prisoners as "The Hangar" and believed to be at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, al Libi told fellow "ghost prisoners," one recalled to me for a PBS "Frontline" to be broadcast tonight, an incredible story of his treatment over the previous two years: of how questioned at first by Americans, by the FBI and then CIA, of how he was threatened with torture. And then how he was rendered to a jail cell in Egypt where the threats became a reality.

In his book, officially cleared for publication, Tenet confirms how the CIA outsourced al Libi's interrogation. He said he was sent to a third country (inadvertently named in another part of the book as Egypt) for "further debriefing."

The Bush administration has said that terrorists are trained to invent tales of torture.

Of course tales of torture weren't the only tales al Libi was "trained" in invent. The CIA believed al Libi's claims this time and wrote a series of cables to CIA headquarters documenting some of his treatment.
Under torture after his rendition to Egypt, al Libi had provided a confession of how Saddam Hussein had been training al Qaeda in chemical weapons. This evidence was used by Colin Powell at the United Nations a year earlier (February 2003) to justify the war in Iraq. ("I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al Qaeda," Powell said. "Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.")

But now, hearing how the information was obtained, the CIA was soon to retract all this intelligence. A Feb. 5 cable records that al Libi was told by a "foreign government service" (Egypt) that: "the next topic was al-Qa'ida's connections with Iraq...This was a subject about which he said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story."

Al Libi indicated that his interrogators did not like his responses and then "placed him in a small box approximately 50cm X 50cm [20 inches x 20 inches]." He claimed he was held in the box for approximately 17 hours. When he was let out of the box, al Libi claims that he was given a last opportunity to "tell the truth." When al Libi did not satisfy the interrogator, al Libi claimed that "he was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and he fell on his back." Al Libi told CIA debriefers that he then "was punched for 15 minutes." (Sourced to CIA cable, Feb. 5, 2004).

Here was a cable then that informed Washington that one of the key pieces of evidence for the Iraq war -- the al Qaeda/Iraq link -- was not only false but extracted by effectively burying a prisoner alive.

Sadly the cables languished in the back pages of a Senate Intelligence committee report. Which isn't surprising since events at Abu Ghraib would soon come to dominant the news and were by far the clearest example of how the US treated its detainees.

But what happened to al Libi makes the debate on Mukasey all the more important. The Bush administration used a false confession to drive the US into the last war. By confirming Muskasey, the Congress would be ensuring the Bushies could do so again for the next one.

Blog Thanks: Salon's Blog Report for linking to the SotD of this post.

(Filed at State of the Day and All Spin Zone)

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