In his new memoir Decision Points, former President George W. Bush says that he personally approved the use of waterboarding against 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission human rights experts say could have legal consequences for him. Bush says that he was asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who was suspected of knowing about pending plots against the United States, and that after getting a thumbs-up from legal advisors, he replied “Damn right.” Bush says “Their interrogations helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States.”
Really? The veracity of this latest assertion is under question. The Daily Telegraph reports that Bush’s claim is supported by “by a welter of evidence,” including a confession made by Mohammed to a military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay, where he said he had been in charge of “planning, surveying and financing for the operation to destroy Heathrow Airport, the Canary Wharf Building and Big Ben on British soil.” But the Telegraph quotes others who are more dubious. “I have to say I’m skeptical,” said Daveed Gartenstein Ross, a US terrorism expert. “Having said that, there are just a handful of people who know what was said and in what circumstances, and I’m not one of them”. Kim Howells, a former Labour MP who chaired Britain’s intelligence and security committee, said he doubted that “what we regard as torture actually produced information instrumental in preventing those plots coming to fruition”.
In The Guardian, David Davis, the Conservative former shadow home secretary and a strong advocate for civil liberties and due process, said: “For [Bush] to demonstrate the use of torture saved British lives he has to demonstrate you can’t get information any other way. We know from Iraq that whenever brains rather than brutality was involved, you get better results.” Davis pointed to claims made by one detainee, Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, after he was tortured that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, both of which have proved not to be true. Adds The Guardian, “Bush also mentioned Abu Zubaydah, waterboarded after his capture in Pakistan in 2002. Zubaydah told his interrogators that al-Qaida had links with Saddam Hussein and that there was a plot to attack Washington with a “dirty bomb”. Both claims are now recognized by the CIA to be false.”
There is another question beyond the issue of results: has Bush opened himself to criminal charges? Says The Independent, “A British court, however, would regard waterboarding as torture and illegal. It contravenes Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Downing Street stated yesterday that it came under the British Government’s definition of torture.” Quoted in The Guardian, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC said that, by confessing to ordering torture, Bush risks prosecution. “George W Bush has confessed to ordering waterboarding, which in the view of almost all experts clearly passes the severe pain threshold in the definition of torture in international law.” The former president is lucky his preternatural incuriosity is unlikely to take him very often across Texas state lines.