Defending their record in office these past eight years, figures from the last administration seem especially touchy on the subject of torture. Led by the former vice president, Dick Cheney, they have argued that there was no torture, preferring more vague and delicate terms such as “enhanced interrogation” or simply “the program.” They have insisted that any harsh tactics were used only to extract “actionable intelligence” from recalcitrant terrorists in order to save “thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands” of innocent lives.

But now we are learning that those methods, long banned as torture in our own laws and treaties, may well have been employed for a very different and deeply nefarious purpose: to justify the dubious invasion of Iraq by falsely connecting Saddam Hussein’s regime to al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks.

Even as Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators seek to distract public attention by demanding to know when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first learned about waterboarding, the disturbing evidence of serious criminality continues to emerge.

A former top aide to Colin Powell recently revealed that a Libyan prisoner was brutalized by Egyptian intelligence agents, at the behest of the Bush White House, until he talked about a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. (That man, who later recanted those statements, which he said had been made under torture, has supposedly killed himself in a prison cell in his homeland, so he is no longer around to offer any inconvenient testimony.)

A pair of retired senior intelligence officials told former NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem that in April 2003 the vice president’s office itself suggested the waterboarding of a former Iraqi intelligence official captured in Baghdad, in order to make him talk about the mythical ties between his government and al-Qaida. A series of reports have indicated that torture was used to elicit the same false testimony from Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida operative subjected to waterboarding literally dozens of times — even though he had begun to cooperate with FBI interrogators.

Despite the expected denials of such gross misconduct emanating from the intelligence community, some of the most damning evidence came from Mr. Cheney’s own mouth. Back in 2004, according to the McClatchy Newspapers, he boasted to the Rocky Mountain News (a Denver daily that has since ceased publishing) that the fruits of interrogation had vindicated him.

When a Rocky Mountain News reporter asked whether he still stood by earlier statements linking Saddam to the terrorist perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, despite demurrals from Mr. Powell, Mr. Cheney replied: “We know for example from interrogating detainees in Guantanamo that al-Qaida sent individuals to Baghdad to be trained in … chemical and biological weapons technology.” He went on to predict that when all of the Saddam regime’s records were examined, there would be “ample evidence confirming the link.”

Five years later, there is still no evidence confirming the link. There is persuasive evidence, however, that Gitmo prisoners were tortured on orders from the Bush White House, where Mr. Cheney commandeered authority on such matters. Former U.S. Army psychiatrist Maj. Charles Burney told Army investigators in 2006 that he and other interrogators at the detainee camp had been ordered to focus on a certain topic, without success, despite resorting to those “enhanced” techniques.

“While we were there, a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaida and Iraq, and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaida and Iraq,” Major Burney testified.

As Mr. Cheney no doubt knows, prisoners enduring torture can be induced to say almost anything to ease their pain and fear. American Special Forces are trained to resist those ugly methods precisely because they have been used by totalitarian regimes to extract false confessions for centuries.

It is hard to imagine anything more disturbing than the use of torture by the U.S. government in seeking to justify an aggressive and unjustified war, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Now we need to know whether those awful offenses were perpetrated on Mr. Cheney’s watch — by fully empowering a truth commission to take testimony from him and his associates under oath.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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