Holder and Powell Ain’t
By Ray McGovern
I used to take a certain pride by association with prominent
Bronxites who have “made it.” Cancel
that for Attorney General Eric Holder and former secretary of state Colin
Why would they want to whitewash torture, given what blacks
have suffered at the hands of torturers in this country and abroad?
And why is it that they seem to value more their entrée into
a privileged white-dominated ruling class than doing the right thing? How else to explain their stunning reluctance
to hold torturers accountable and thus remove the stain of torture from our
nation’s soul and reputation?
What’s Holding Holder?
One might say that Attorney General Eric Holder is proving
himself to be part of that “nation of cowards” that he called the United States
in a different context; i.e., our unwillingness to address the issue of
race. What about when the victims of
torture are Muslims? Where’s Holder’s
Surely, I was not the only one stunned by former vice
president Dick Cheney’s public admission that he helped authorize waterboarding
of detainees. But, on reflection, there
seems to have been a method to his madness; and, so far at least, the method
seems to be working.
Have Holder and Colin Powell forgotten from their days
growing up in the Bronx the typical reaction of bullies when caught in the
act? “Okay, so waddaya gonna do ‘bout
it!” It was an attempt at intimidation,
and it was generally effective with those who felt not quite up to the challenge.
Looks very much as if Cheney sized up Holder correctly. During his confirmation hearings, Holder
manfully agreed with Sen. Patrick Leahy that waterboarding, which subjects a
person to the panicked gag reflex of drowning, is torture.
But Holder has been out to lunch since then, no doubt
leaving Cheney and his torture-friendly friends smirking at having been correct
in taking the measure of the new attorney general. Call it chutzpah,
intimidation, bullying—whatever; it does seem to be working.
Cheney endorsing waterboarding; Holder labeling it torture;
and—Hello? Anyone home? Deafening silence.
Never mind that Holder, like President Barack Obama, took a
solemn oath to faithfully execute the laws of the land. Why are they still afraid of Dick Cheney,
whom even the neo-con editors of the Washington
Post three and a half years ago branded “Vice President for Torture?”
Profile in Cowardice
Holder seems to be taking his cue from the pitiable Colin
Powell, now traversing the country giving lucrative speeches on
leadership. Powell knew he was welcome
in the club, or in this case the White House, only as long as he toed the line
and was willing to offer up what was left of his reputation to the Bush/Cheney
True, in one brief spurt of behind-the-scenes assertiveness,
Powell insisted that arch-prevaricator (and former CIA director) George Tenet
sit behind him during Powell’s unforgettable/unforgivable speech at the UN on
February 5, 2003. Could he have been so
unaware as to think this might somehow shame the shameless Tenet into coming
clean about the cooked intelligence?
No way. And he knew
it. Powell had already confided to
then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the case against Iraq was what
in the Bronx is called a “crock.”
I know Powell. In the
early 80’s, when he wore but one star as military assistant to the Secretary of
Defense—and I was a CIA intelligence briefer—I used to do him the courtesy of
pre-briefing him, to the extent I could, on what I was about to discuss during
my early-morning one-on-ones with his boss, Casper Weinberger. I found Powell to be anything but naïve.
He and I had a good bit in common—growing up at about the
same time a mile from each other in the Bronx, “Distinguished Military
Graduates” commissioned via Army R.O.T.C.—he from City College in 1958, I from
Fordham in 1961. Initially, I was
blissfully unaware of the many times he had compromised himself—in doing
Weinberger’s bidding on Iran-Contra, for example. And so in 1989 I took a certain pride by
association when Powell made it to the very top as chairman of the Joint Chiefs
That pride quickly dissipated as I watched Powell kowtow to
those bent on launching a war of aggression on Iraq. Republican elder statesman James Baker, who
was secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, has referred to Powell as the
one person who could have stopped that war.
Baker is right.
Caving on Torture
More to the point, Colin Powell betrayed the US Army and the
nation on the iconic issue of torture.
When he got a whiff of the tortured prose being served up to
the president by the likes of Alberto Gonzales and David Addington to somehow
make torture “legal,” Powell took the coward’s way out. He had his lawyer get in touch with the
Mafia-style lawyers in the White House to ask them please, could they please
ask the president to reconsider his decision to exempt al-Qaeda and the Taliban
from the protections of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of
Powell’s gentle demurral appears in a MEMORANUM FOR THE
PRESIDENT, dated January 25, 2002, drafted by Addington but signed by
Gonzales. They did include Powell’s
argument in a paragraph at the bottom of a list of “negative” consequences of
“A determination that
Geneva does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban could undermine U.S. military
culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in
combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of
Powell got that right.
Too bad he did not have the courage of his convictions. Too bad he lacked the guts to confront the
Too bad, for he is perhaps the one person who could have
stopped the torture and the debasement of the army to which he owed so
much. Powell was unwilling to put into
play the wide respect he still enjoyed, in order to stop a war of aggression
and what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal called the accumulated evil
inevitably springing from such a war (like, say, torture). Instead, he opted to trade in that respect for
the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.
As the Executive Summary of the Senate Armed Services
Committee report on torture, released on December 11, 2008, indicates,
President George W. Bush threw in his lot with the early opinions of Addington
and Gonzales. (What most folks don’t
realize is that this was before everyone’s favorite bête noir John Yoo and associates served
up their ex post facto “justifications.”)
Incorporating Addington’s language of January 25, 2002, the
president signed an executive order on February 7, 2002 that, in the words of
the Senate committee, “opened the door” to torture. I invite you to download both documents in
their original format from the web.
(Don’t do it, though, unless you are prepared to feel deep shame for our
Powell, one of the addressees of the Feb. 7 executive order,
not only acquiesced but also let himself be sucked into a series of discussions
in the White House situation room regarding which torture techniques might be most
appropriate to apply to which “high-value” detainee. Those are the sessions that one of the
participants, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, referred to in commenting
that “history will not be kind” to us.
What brings this painful flashback to mind is Rachel
Maddow’s interview with Colin Powell on April 2. Not surprisingly, he danced around her
questions about the White House seminars on torture. Most telling of all, however, Powell could
not bring himself to admit, even now, that waterboarding is torture.
On Friday former undersecretary of defense for policy,
Douglas Feith, fabulous fabricator of the fabled Saddam Hussein-al-Qaeda
connection, upped the ante in the “so-wattaya-gonna-do-‘bout-it” stakes, and
held up to ridicule the timidity of Holder and the president.
Writing in the Wall
Street Journal, Feith pretended to be shocked at the temerity of a Spanish
court that seems on the verge of bringing criminal charges against Feith,
Gonzales, Addington, John Yoo, and two other lawyers who served up the desired
opinions on how the White House could make an end run around domestic and
international law and approve the systematic torture of detainees.
Disregarding the provisions of international law that
clearly do apply, Feith makes liberal use of reductio ad absurdum to “prove” that Spain has no jurisdiction to
put Americans on trial for torture.
More important, Feith is so cocksure of himself that he
throws down the gauntlet at the feet of the new administration: “If
President Barack Obama and the prosecutors see a crime to be prosecuted, they
What, I wonder, gives Feith such confidence that he will not
one day rue having said that? Has it
been his watching of a long line of timid officials—both Democrats and Republicans—who
lack the courage of their convictions?
Is it sheer contempt for the clear majority of American citizens who,
polls show, support efforts to hold the Bush/Cheney administration accountable?
Clearly, the Cheneys and Feiths of this world are betting on
Obama being cut of the same cloth as Powell and Holder. The president will prove them right if it
turns out that his oft-repeated “No one is above the law” proves to be just
And it will remain just rhetoric, if Obama delays much
longer in ordering the reluctant Holder to appoint a nonpartisan, independent
special prosecutor to bring the torturers to justice and end this shameful
chapter in American history once and for all.
Ray McGovern works
with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour
in inner-city Washington. He was a CIA
analyst for many years and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran
Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
This article first
appeared on Consortiumnews.com.