Newsweek’s Alter: ‘Not Patriotic’ for ‘Sick’ Cheney to Call Obama ‘Weak’

On Friday’s Countdown show, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter seemed to take turns reining in each other’s conspiracy theories as the two discussed the latest on former Vice President Cheney’s request for the release of classified information regarding the results of waterboarding al-Qaeda detainees. Alter charged that former Vice President Cheney is attacking President Obama’s national security policies so that his own popularity will be "resurrected" if there is another 9/11-style attack, as the Newsweek editor called Cheney’s behavior "sick":

Alter:

It`s the former Vice President who is becoming a forlorn and, I think, soon to be even further disgraced figure. But this is his bid for resurrection. Because what he is betting on – and this is the sick thing to me, Keith – is that if there's another attack that he will then be back as a huge and important figure who predicted that this would happen if we stopped torturing. And this is his bid for historical resurrection.

Olbermann assumed Alter was charging that Cheney desires another 9/11 attack for his own benefit, and actually seemed to halfway defend Cheney, prompting Alter to clarify that he did not actually think the former Vice President was hoping for another attack, but he also contended that it was "not a very patriotic thing to do" for Cheney to call President Obama "weak":

KEITH OLBERMANN: Well, I, I`m, I hope that`s not the case. Even with my attitude towards these people, I hope that can`t possibly be the case, that he would want to see that happen for justification-

JONATHAN ALTER: No, no, he doesn`t want to see, he doesn't want to see an attack. Don`t misunderstand me. If there is an attack. Of course not. But what he`s positioning for, himself for, by calling the President weak, for a former Vice President to say that, that`s not a very patriotic thing to do. He is positioning himself to say "I told you so" should we be attacked again.

Olbermann had earlier brought up his theory that the Bush administration waterboarded al-Qaeda detainees because they deliberately wanted to induce confessions they knew would be false that could be used to justify an invasion of Iraq, prompting disagreement from Alter. Olbermann later brought up the same theory with the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who seemed to hold open that possibility as he expressed uncertainty. First, the exchange with Alter:

OLBERMANN: If told that this information was going to be unreliable and not factual, presumably, they wouldn`t have turned to it unless it was just some idea that they wanted to enjoy torturing people, which may or may not be true, but doesn`t seem to help anybody`s cause in any direct way. Doesn`t this cinch the idea that the purpose of torturing detainees was not to get useful information to protect America in some way, but it was to get people to confess to things that did not happen?

ALTER: No, I think they still wanted usable information. They just were insistent that the theory that they saw on, you know, shows like 24, that it worked, could help their cause.

During his interview with Robinson, after noting that "this is the same question I asked Jon Alter, and I don`t think he wanted to go in the direction I was going in," and after recounting the memo opining that waterboarding would likely produce false confessions, Olbermann posed the question: "Does that not suggest that the goal of this torture was that that thing and the worst-case scenario that we`ve been discussing all along, that idea that torture was used not to get information to protect this country, but was designed to backfill this crap about the war in Iraq having something to do with 9/11?"

Robinson responded:

I think we don`t know that yet. I think, I think that is a possibility. It is a possibility, and certainly, in some cases, that they were trying to get somebody to say there was this al-Qaeda/Saddam link that never existed in order to justify the war. But it, I think it is also possible that in their fevered imaginations and in their intransigence, they simply refused to listen to that evidence, and they had decided that they thought that it would work, and they were going to go ahead with it. And there could be a certain amount of anger, as well, and revenge, and we`re going to do something to these guys.

The two concluded their discussion:

OLBERMANN: So the best-case scenario is, the Bush administration`s logic collapsed under pressure?

ROBINSON: Yep, that`s as good as it`s going to get, I`m afraid.

Below is a complete transcript of the interview with Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, followed by a complete transcript of the interview with Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, from the Friday, April 24, Countdown show on MSNBC:

KEITH OLBERMANN: Good evening from New York. The Pentagon`s top lawyer was told by the Americans responsible for defending Americans from torture by other nations no later than July 2002 that what he wanted to do to detainees was torture. And continuing our fifth story on the Countdown: We, today, also learned that the paper trail of CIA torture documents leads directly to Vice President Cheney`s office.

The actual request forms that Mr. Cheney has submitted to the National Archives for documents that he claims will prove torture worked, that he claims will show that waterboarding yielded actionable intelligence -- obtained and posted online this afternoon by Greg Sargent at the Plum Line blog. Mr. Cheney is requesting two documents from his own office, the Office of the Vice President, the OVP, from his immediate office files. The title of the folder in which these documents are contained: "Detainees." That is correct. Vice President Cheney had his own folder in his own office marked, "Detainees."

But it appears he does not want to disclose the full contents of that folder, not even the full contents of each of the documents. Mr. Cheney would seem to be requesting only eight pages of a July 13, 2004, document that appears to be fully a dozen pages long, according to another page in that request. Also, requesting what would seem to be only 13 pages of a June 1, 2005, document that appears to be fully 21 pages long.

What might be the significance of those two dates, coming as they did years after the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Well, on July 13, 2004, the CIA, having completed a still classified internal investigation of the program, a report that has never been released despite numerous requests. Only a month earlier, in June 2004, the new chief of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith, having revoked Jay Bybee`s August 2002 memo attempting to justify torture, is doing so, having sent Cheney`s lawyer, Mr. Addington, into a rage.

By June of the following year, it will probably not surprise you to learn that there was a new chief at the OLC, Steven Bradbury. And on June 1, 2005, Mr. Bradbury, having released the last in a series of three memos that re-authorized the CIA`s interrogation program. In them, claiming, among other things, that waterboarding does not cause severe physical pain – a determination that Abu Zubaydah might disagree with.

In the Red Cross torture report, Mr. Zubaydah himself and other detainees, offering harrowing first person accounts of what their experiences of torture were really like. Eight nonstop hours of enhanced interrogation every day, including waterboarding, that induced vomiting and a loss of bladder control. To this day, Zubaydah still says he loses that control when under stress.

The timeline of Zubaydah`s interrogation called in to question by other accounts and reports. According to the New Yorker magazine, the CIA, having taken over the interrogation of Zubaydah in April 2002. That same month, senior officials in the White House began discussing so-called "enhanced interrogation" for use against him.

According to the Levin report, by June 2002, still two months before the Bybee authorization memo, the FBI having pulled all of its agents from the CIA interrogation permanently, because of concerns that what they had been witnessing was borderline torture.

And as we first mentioned at the top of this hour, the military agency that helped devise the techniques to be used against terrorism suspects, the JPRA, the same agency that trains American soldiers to withstand torture, having warned the Pentagon`s chief lawyer that torture would produce, quote, "unreliable information."

Cited earlier in this week in that Levin report, obtained in full tonight by the Washington Post, that JPRA memo also warns, quote, "The key operational deficits related to the use of torture is its impact on the reliability and accuracy of the information provided. If an interrogator produces information that resulted from the application of physical and psychological duress, the reliability and accuracy of this information is in doubt." In other words, a subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers, in order to get the pain to stop.

And now, it turns out that memo was, in fact, itself a follow-up, as the Post also observes, the committee report says the attachment, that memo, echoes JPRA warnings issued in late 2001. Meaning, the Pentagon was looking into torture before anybody like Zubaydah had even been captured, or long before ordinary interrogation methods had failed. Time now to bring in our own Jonathan Alter, senior editor at Newsweek magazine. Jon, it`s some evening. Good evening.

JONATHAN ALTER: Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: First off, Rumsfeld`s attorney, Haynes, knew that what he wanted to do, from the people who were basically in the "protect you against torture" business, he knew this was torture. Are we supposed to assume that he, as the point man for the Pentagon, investigating what we could get away with, kept this opinion to himself?

ALTER: No. Clearly, this was shared, you know, all over the building. Look, the bottom line here is that the Pentagon has known for a long time – as John McCain has said – that torture doesn`t work. People give you the wrong answer so as to stop the pain. So what we know now is that they were warned that not only was it, A, torture, B, it wouldn`t produce actionable intelligence. And so, we`re, you know, all of these subsequent memos and discussion of this issue has to be seen in that context, that they knew going in that this was unreliable.

OLBERMANN: But, one thing, they`ve never been accused of being total idiots. If told that this information was going to be unreliable and not factual, presumably, they wouldn`t have turned to it unless it was just some idea that they wanted to enjoy torturing people, which may or may not be true, but doesn`t seem to help anybody`s cause in any direct way. Doesn`t this cinch the idea that the purpose of torturing detainees was not to get useful information to protect America in some way, but it was to get people to confess to things that did not happen?

ALTER: No, I think they still wanted usable information. They just were insistent that the theory that they saw on, you know, shows like 24, that it worked, could help their cause. So now, what you see is former Vice President Cheney cherry-picking, he`s down to just 21 pages out of all the thousands and thousands of pages of government documents, trying to cherry-pick a little evidence to show that they foiled a plot in Los Angeles or something else, to prove that the torture worked. The only antidote to all of this, Keith, is a full hearing, where everybody, including Cheney, is hauled before a committee. That`s a separate issue than whether there should be prosecutions, and what the remedy should be, whether Judge Bybee should be impeached. Personally, I think he should be. But all of that is a separate issue from the fact finding. So what tonight represents is the beginning of an effort to find out the truth so that we can move forward in a better informed way.

OLBERMANN: Was the man who most advanced this effort, this week, Dick Cheney, by making this request, this essentially freedom of information request from his own office? Did he not just establish, well, we know, this is how high up the chain of evidence goes, it goes into the damned Vice President`s file cabinet?

ALTER: It certainly means that he must be a witness.

OLBERMANN: Right.

ALTER: And I think there are some people talking in the last few days, "Well, you know, they`ll never get Cheney up there before a committee." Well, if they don`t, it means it`s a sham committee. He`s at the center of this and must be cross-examined on these matters.

OLBERMANN: The timeline also. Now, we`re beginning to see this here, this document that`s quoted in the Post today and printed in full: this attachment is itself a follow up, that there was some sort of contact between this lawyer at the Pentagon, Haynes, and the people behind SERE, sometime in 2001 – which they said, "Hey, you know, we`re dealing with torture. We`re dealing with torture." That is the word for it – 96 words into the document. The word "torture" appears matter of factly, not as some sort of "maybe it`s torture." They knew that`s what it was. It was in place before anything broke down. It now seems that they were ready with these, with these methods before anybody was captured. The timeline keeps moving backwards further and further back towards some decision made around 9/11 to go out and torture people once we found out who the people were. It had nothing to do with how they responded.

ALTER: Yeah. Now, clearly, people, and an awful lot of people were moving toward that. Remember, at the time, the greatest crime in American history had not been solved. We hadn`t gotten to the bottom of who attacked us on 9/11. So there was a fair amount of desperation to try to get more information. I think it`s important historically to look at the context of that period.

But what happened afterward is that even though this was clearly torture, anybody in the military knew it was torture, it was an effort in these OLC memos to try to dress it up as something else – call it "enhanced interrogation techniques" or whatever they wanted to call it, to guild the lily, although it wasn`t a lily. And to, you know, to try to say that black was white and white was black, and for several years they seemed to get away with it, until it began to unravel on them.

And now, what`s so fascinating is that Dick Cheney stands almost alone. You don`t see former President Bush out there pursuing this. You don`t see Condi Rice or Don Rumsfeld or others. It`s the former Vice President who is becoming a forlorn and, I think, soon to be even further disgraced figure. But this is his bid for resurrection.

OLBERMANN: Yeah.

ALTER: Because what he is betting on – and this is the sick thing to me, Keith – is that if there’s another attack that he will then be back as a huge and important figure who predicted that this would happen if we stopped torturing. And this is his bid for historical resurrection.

OLBERMANN: Well, I, I`m, I hope that`s not the case. Even with my attitude towards these people, I hope that can`t possibly be the case, that he would want to see that happen for justification-

ALTER: No, no, he doesn`t want to see, he doesn’t want to see an attack. Don`t misunderstand me. If there is an attack. Of course, not. But what he`s positioning for, himself for, by calling the President weak, for a former Vice President to say that, that`s not a very patriotic thing to do. He is positioning himself to say "I told you so" should we be attacked again.

OLBERMANN: But what is the, what is the validity of going for, just as you said, cherry-picking, not just in volume of memos, but in terms of individual pages from these memos? What does that do other than self-smear? Because if you`re asking just for the stuff, the evidence that looks good for you, people are going to be able to recognize that, that you`ve cherry-picked your data – about 21 pages out of 20,000 of them.

ALTER: But he wants to put on the public record something, and we don`t know what it is yet, but something to the effect that there were tall buildings in Los Angeles that were targeted by terrorists until we found out from waterboarding that this was going to happen and we foiled the plot. That`s what he`s aiming for.

OLBERMANN: You don`t mean that one in particular, though, because that was foiled in 2002, long before we had anybody arrested or tortured.

ALTER: You know, I don`t, who knows which plots they will use as a way of justifying that. It could be that even though these memos from 2004 and 2005, they go back a couple of years. It`s that gap actually that`s very interesting. You would think if the torture had been so successful that they would have written it up in a memo contemporaneously in 2002-

OLBERMANN: Yeah.

ALTER: -and 2003, rather than waiting a couple of years to show that these techniques were so effective.

OLBERMANN: Jonathan Alter of MSNBC and Newsweek, great thanks.

ALTER: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: We`re going to continue on the breaking news with Gene Robinson in a moment.

...

OLBERMANN: Continuing with the breaking news that the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency warned William Haynes, the top Pentagon lawyer, the top lawyer for then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, in a memo in July of 2002, classified, now part of the Levin report and obtained today by the Washington Post, that what he was contemplating, the efforts and means he was contemplating using what he was getting from their program SERE, S-E-R-E, were in fact actual, definitionally described as "torture." That the Pentagon knew no later than July 2002 – and there`s evidence of earlier communication between this field and the Pentagon – as late as, or as early as 2001, that there had to be considerable interaction between those two agencies indicating to the Pentagon that what he was going to do was torture. Let`s continue now with Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist of the Washington Post and, when we`re lucky, here at MSNBC. Good evening, Gene.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Well, this is some document to appear in your paper tonight. I guess, the premise of this, the headline of this is, we now have a much lengthier and detailed timeline, and also, names to put in here, as to when the Bush administration started to pretend that what it was going to do would not be torture.

ROBINSON: That`s right. And we have here, in the document, as you said, explicitly, explicit references to these techniques as torture. You know, quote, it speaks of, quote, "the unintended consequence" of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners, and argues against this policy. Now, we know this went to the Pentagon`s top lawyer.

One assumes that it went higher, and one assumes it was disseminated more widely through the administration at some point, for example. The CIA should have been, should have been told about, why write the memo, if you didn`t want to get it to them, to explain what was wrong with this policy. But, so there were lots of threads to follow here, and one of them is, who saw this memo and when, and decided essentially to squelch it, because obviously, they didn’t act on it.

OLBERMANN: The thing is largely devoid of moral judgments of right and wrong, but merely questions of effectiveness. But as a primer on effectiveness on a methodology, it pretty much is damming the whole idea -- this second thing, leading, the subheading "Operational Concerns" reads, "As noted previously, upwards of 90 percent of interrogations have been successful through the exclusive use of a direct approach where a degree of rapport is established with the prisoner. Once any means of duress has been purposely applied to the prisoner, the formerly cooperative relationship cannot be re-established. In addition, the prisoner`s level of resolve to resist cooperating with the interrogator will likely be increased as a result of harsh or brutal treatment." This almost describes the timeline that just pertains to the Abu Zubaydah case, where he gave up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the supposed dirty bomber, Jose Padilla, while being interrogated in a non-violent fashion, and then clammed up once we started to beat the hell out of him.

ROBINSON: Exactly. And this is perhaps the most complete and almost succinct, you know, explanation of why torture is ineffective, why many experts, most experts believe that it`s ineffective. Because as the memo says, people, sure people will give them information, they`ll say anything to make the torture stop. Obviously, it doesn`t make you feel warm and fuzzy about your interrogators, that they`re torturing you. So you`re not going to be inclined to cooperate with them.

I mean, you know, so it`s interesting that this whole torture inquiry is kind of moving on three fronts now. There`s a moral question, which, you know, some people think is undecided. Obviously, I think it`s decided that it`s immoral. There`s the question of effectiveness, and this is devastating, I think, evidence or testimony about its ineffectiveness. And then there`s the legal question as well. I mean, we know already that crimes were committed and at some point – and I don`t know exactly when – but at some point, we`re going to run up against that, and we`re going to have to do something about it.

OLBERMANN: They are told repeatedly – and this is the same question I asked Jon Alter, and I don`t think he wanted to go in the direction I was going in. Maybe I am completely wrong about this, but they are told that it`s going to produce bad information, that people will say anything under torture, as if – as if that wasn`t just common sense, but they have it in black and white. You use torture and you`re going to get any answer or many answers – that`s a beautiful phrase for a piece of bureaucratic paperwork, and it`s in here. They`re told they`re going to get these lies for people to stop the pain. Does that not suggest that the goal of this torture was that that thing and the worst-case scenario that we`ve been discussing all along, that idea that torture was used not to get information to protect this country, but was designed to backfill this crap about the war in Iraq having something to do with 9/11?

ROBINSON: I think we don`t know that yet. I think, I think that is a possibility. It is a possibility, and certainly, in some cases, that they were trying to get somebody to say there was this al-Qaeda/Saddam link that never existed in order to justify the war. But it, I think it is also possible that in their fevered imaginations and in their intransigence, they simply refused to listen to that evidence and they had decided that they thought that it would work, and they were going to go ahead with it. And there could be a certain amount of anger, as well, and revenge, and we`re going to do something to these guys.

OLBERMANN: So the best-case scenario is, the Bush administration`s logic collapsed under pressure?

ROBINSON: Yep, that`s as good as it`s going to get, I`m afraid.

OLBERMANN: Gene Robinson of the Washington Post; helping us put a little perspective on this. Thank you as always, my friend, and have a great weekend.

ROBINSON: Same to you, Keith.