ACLU Urges Congress to Examine White House National Security Council as Central Decision-Maker on Torture

June 10, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – On the day of two important congressional hearings, Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office said, “It is time to get to the bottom of this administration’s torture regime Congress and the American public have looked at all of the supporting cast, but not at the lead roles.”

ACLU’s senior legislative counsel Christopher Anders explained that, “this double-header of torture hearings gives Congress the chance to focus squarely on the role of the National Security Council.”

There are two important torture-related hearings on Tuesday June 10. The first is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which the Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine is expected to testify about the FBI’s role in interrogation and in reporting any illegal torture techniques to the White House and other agencies. Tomorrow afternoon, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations and Human Rights is scheduled to convene with the former National Security Council Legal Advisor, John Bellinger, as the sole witness. Bellinger, currently Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State, was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s counsel at the National Security Council before they both moved to the State Department in 2005.

Fredrickson noted that Congress is waking up to the top-down authorization of torture in this administration: “Members of Congress are beginning to connect the dots. First they blamed the privates and the field operatives, then the generals. But now Congress is finally beginning to ask who made the ultimate decisions at the top.”

A major recent ABC News report explained the central role of the NSC and its Principals Committee in authorizing the use of specific interrogation tactics on specific detainees. The White House-based NSC, according to this report, was the ultimate decision-maker, and the discussions were so detailed that the report describes the meetings as almost choreographing the interrogations of specific detainees. Of course, then-National Security Advisor Rice chaired the NSC Principals meetings during the relevant periods and then-NSC Legal Advisor John Bellinger chaired the NSC Policy Coordinating Committee.

Fredrickson said, “It is time to find out what the NSC leaders knew about torture. And what they did about it. When the FBI or the DOJ complained about illegal torture activity, they complained to the NSC. The question Congress must ask is what happened then?”

The recent Justice Department Inspector General report on the FBI’s role in interrogations helps substantiate that the NSC was the decision-maker on interrogations. The IG reports that there were “regular (sometimes weekly)” meetings on detainee issues by the NSC Policy Coordinating Committee (that included top attorneys from the relevant agencies), and that unresolved issues were bumped up first to the NSC Deputies Committee (made up of the number two officials at departments such as Justice, Defense, State, and the CIA), and then to the NSC Principals Committee (chaired by Rice and including Cheney, the Attorney General, the director of the CIA, and secretaries of Defense and State). Although the IG’s focus was on the FBI, he describes various efforts by Justice Department and FBI officials to raise concerns about the interrogations, and many of those expressions of concern went to NSC officials or to NSC committees.

Anders said, “The Inspector General’s references to the National Security Council provide a small window into what has been a completely hidden and ignored piece of the torture puzzle–but perhaps the most important piece of all. It is now the job of Congress to crack that window open more, and shed some light on what was going on in the basement of the White House. The central locus of decisions on torture may very well have been the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice’s leadership, but the NSC and Rice have made it through four years since Abu Ghraib with almost no oversight or attention. It is time for the NSC and Rice to be held accountable for any torture authorized under her watch.”

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