Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
David S. Addington

Don't let Addington duck the big questions

ASK THIS | June 24, 2008

The vice president's secretive enforcer is set to testify on Capitol Hill on Thursday about how the administration developed its interrogation policies – something he probably knows more about than anyone else. It's essential that members of Congress subject him to a concerted, well-planned examination, rather than let him play them for fools. So how about ganging up?

By Dan Froomkin

David S. Addington, Vice President Cheney’s formidable and reclusive chief of staff, is scheduled to appear before a the House Judiciary Committee Thursday for a hearing on how the Bush administration developed its interrogation policies. Signs are that he actually intends to show up.

It’s essential that members of the committee not blow the best chance the public has yet had to understand how the United States came to adopt torture as an acceptable interrogation technique, and in so doing found itself among the world’s pariah nations. A compelling and well-supported (if partly circumstantial) narrative casts Addington as the dominant figure in the inter-agency push to step up the pressure on terror suspects. This is not surprising, as Addington is thought to have been at the red-hot center of pretty much every one of President Bush’s most extreme assertions of unfettered executive power. The 51-year-old lawyer is Cheney’s most able and devoted henchman, his sharpest knife, his lead loyalist among the legion salted throughout the executive branch. Indeed, he is widely thought to have ghost-written memos and public statements ascribed to better known figures such as Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and William Haynes.

It’s not exactly a fluke that Addington got his current chief-of-staff job – he initially served Cheney solely as legal counsel – when his predecessor, Scooter Libby, was indicted on obstruction of justice and perjury charges. (For more on Addington, see Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, Chitra Ragavan in U.S. News, Jeffrey Rosen in the New York Times Magazine, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in The Washington Post, and my Sept. 5 column for washingtonpost.com.) Addington has never testified on the Hill before. He never talks to reporters, at least not for attribution. It’s a mystery that he agreed to honor the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena and show up on Thursday at all, especially after his own office initially asserted that the vice president and his entire staff are completely immune from any congressional oversight. But one explanation for Addington’s readiness to appear is his confidence that the members of the Judiciary Committee won’t lay a glove on him. He has ample reason to think so.

The 13 members of the subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties will only have five minutes at a time for their questions, and Addington is not the day's only witness, as torture-memo author John Yoo will be present as well. How hard will it be for someone as sharp as Addington to filibuster a bunch of members of Congress for five minutes at a time? Especially if they squander time grandstanding, pursuing conflicting goals, and chasing down tangents? What Addington knows is important, and getting it on the public record is so critical, that the committee members should take extraordinary preemptive action. Rather than risk firing random, glancing shots at Addington, they should concentrate their fire. First, interested members and their staffs should get together ahead of time to lay out a detailed game plan. Then, Democratic members of the committee need to do something I don’t believe they have done before: They need to collectively cede their time to one or two members, ideally the former prosecutors, to subject Addington to a sustained and well-planned examination. I nominate Artur Davis -- a former assistant U.S. attorney from Alabama. But others might be up to the task as well.

There’s not much point in asking Yoo anything – why waste time with Charlie McCarthy when Edgar Bergen is sitting right next to him? – Yoo can be brought back later anyway.

The Judiciary Committee’s sole aim on Thursday should be to keep Addington at the table until he provides some answers to some essential questions. Here’s a draft script to that end:

Q. When was the decision made that traditional interrogation methods weren’t sufficient for the challenge of information-gathering? Who made that decision?

Q. What precipitated the decision?

Q. Was there any opposition?

Q. What happened to the opposition?

Q. What made you so sure you were right?

Q. Are we correct in assuming that the operating principle behind these decisions was that 9/11 changed everything? How would you say it changed everything?

Q. Do you consider this a permanent change?

Q. If not, what in your mind needs to happen before we return to normalcy?

Q. How much guidance did you personally give Yoo? How much of the memos attributed to Yoo, Jay Bybee and Gonzales did you write yourself?

Q. Were you satisfied with the quality of Yoo’s legal arguments? Are you now, in retrospect?

Q. Do you recognize any limits to the president’s power over detainees captured in the war on terror? If so, what are they?

Q. How did the vice president’s office in general, and you in particular, become such a pivotal player in this drama?

Q. Did you ever feel you might be a little out front of the president?

Q. How closely did you keep him informed?

Q. History suggests traditional interrogation tactics are highly effective. Why didn’t you have faith in those tactics?

Q. Did you consider that your tactics might elicit false confessions?

Q. Why did you not think there was any need for a congressional role in these decisions? Did you ever consult with members of Congress about these tactics? Did you inform them?

Q. Were you angry at these terror suspects? Did your anger have any role in your thinking?

Q. Were any tactics specifically considered out of bounds? Why was waterboarding OK, but, say, electric shocks to the testicles not? (Or were they? Can you rule out any tactics at all?)

Q. Do you consider the tactics approved for use by the CIA and in Guantanamo to be humane? If not, what makes it OK for us to use them on humans?

Q. Isn't that in clear violation of Geneva’s Common Article III?

Q. What in your mind makes someone eligible for what you called "enhanced interrogation"? What level of proof do you require, of what degree of crime or knowledge?

Q. Do you see any conflict between our use of these tactics and our country’s historic dedication to human dignity?

Q. Do you believe any of these “enhanced” tactics could be legitimately used on American citizens by foreign powers, under any circumstances?

Q. Can you provide any examples of information gathered through what you call “enhanced interrogation” that saved American lives, and that you are confident would not have been elicited by normal means?

Q. As you look back on your involvement in the establishment of U.S. interrogation policy, do you feel proud? Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to accomplish?

And here are just a few of the many specifics questions Addington should be confronted with, as well:

Q. What precipitated your visit to Guantanamo Bay in September 2002, accompanied by Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes and others? Did you discuss specific interrogation techniques? A participant in some of your meetings, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate at Guantánamo, told author Phillipe Sands that the message she took from you visitors was to do “whatever needed to be done.” Was that the message you intended to deliver?

Q. Former Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith writes in his book that when he presented his view that the Fourth Geneva Convention, which describes protections that cover civilians in war zones like Iraq, also covered insurgents and  terrorists,  you became livid. “The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections” you replied angrily, according to Goldsmith. “You cannot question his decision.” Does that accurately reflect your views at the time – and your temperament?

Q. How many meetings did you participate in with CIA officials during which there was discussion about videotapes of CIA interrogation of terror suspects? Did you indicate in any way to the CIA that destroying these tapes would be acceptable, or even preferable? Did you do so based on instructions from the vice president? Do you think destroying them was the right thing to do?

Q. Were you involved in any way with the signing statement President Bush appended to the 2006 emergency supplemental? The president said he would construe provisions of that bill outlawing the torture of detainees “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President…  of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.” What did the president mean by that? Did he mean he didn’t intend to heed the anti-torture provisions?

Finally, to put Addington's answers in some context:

Q. What is your response to those like former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora who says that these tactics, by inspiring opposition and alienating our allies, were hugely costly to our country on a national security basis?

Q. What is your response to those like retired two-star general Anthony Taguba who recently wrote: “After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Q. What is your response to those like former Colin Powell chief of staff Larry Wilkerson who have long argued “that the Office of the Vice President bears responsibility for creating an environment conducive to the acts of torture and murder committed by U.S. forces in the war on terror”?

[This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the hearing is before a Judiciary Committee subcommittee -- not the full committee.]

Missed Opportunity
Posted by boscobobb
07/02/2008, 06:59 PM

Dan, you were so right to anticipate Addington's avoidance, but I dare say few people could have anticipate his palpable contempt for congress as well as the citizens.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.