Al-Libi, Torture, and the Case for the War in Iraq

| Thu May 14, 2009 1:08 PM EDT

On Monday, I wrote about the "suicide" of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi in a Libyan jail. Al-Libi was the man whose false confession, obtained under torture, of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda provided the Bush administration with its casus belli for war with Iraq. It didn't seem to matter that al-Libi's claim that Bin Laden had sent operatives to be trained in the use of weapons of mass destruction by Hussein's people didn't make any sense. "They were killing me," al-Libi later told the FBI about his torturers. "I had to tell them something." A bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report would later conclude that al-Libi lied about the link "to avoid torture."

The al-Libi story has been moving forward at a breakneck pace since it first broke in the Arab press over the weekend. Human Rights Watch, whose staffers last spoke to al-Libi on April 27, called for an investigation into his death in a press release issued late Monday afternoon. (When HRW spoke to al-Libi on the 27th, he refused to be interviewed, instead asking, "Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails?") 

But the biggest news so far in the al-Libi case comes from former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson. In a post on Steve Clemons' Washington Note, Wilkerson writes:

[W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

Wilkerson is saying that getting the false "information" from al-Libi about an Iraq-Al Qaeda link wasn't an unexpected "bonus" of the torture—it was the goal of the torture. Kevin Drum's caution is very important here: "One way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he 'learned' it." But if Wilkerson's information is reliable—and he's been reliable in the past—this changes everything about the torture debate. Josh Marshall explains:

The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral—whatever—most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.

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There's another connection back to the al-Libi story. Wilkerson doubts al-Libi's death was a suicide at all. He continues:

(Incidentally, al-Libi just "committed suicide" in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi....)

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball at Newsweek published a piece on Tuesday casting further doubt on the idea that al-Libi's death was a suicide:

Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and prominent critic of the Kaddafi regime, says there were plenty of reasons to question the report that Libi had committed suicide.... "This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya," Al-Ghwell explains. In the past, he adds, there have been a number of cases where political prisoners are reported to have committed suicide. Then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death. "My gut feeling is that something fishy happened here and somebody in Libya panicked," he says. With the prospect that the Obama administration might release more Bush-era documents about the treatment of CIA detainees, officials in the Kaddafi regime had reasons to be concerned that their "complicity" in the U.S. war on terror would be exposed, Al-Ghwell says.

That sounds fairly damning. More as this develops.

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