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Profiles in Cowardice

I used to take a certain pride by association with prominent Bronxites who have “made it.”  Cancel that for Attorney General Eric Holder and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Why would they want to whitewash torture, given what blacks have suffered at the hands of torturers in this country and abroad?

And why is it that they seem to value more their entrée into a privileged white-dominated ruling class than doing the right thing?  How else to explain their stunning reluctance to hold torturers accountable and thus remove the stain of torture from our nation’s soul and reputation?

What’s Holding Holder?

One might say that Attorney General Eric Holder is proving himself to be part of that “nation of cowards” that he called the United States in a different context; i.e., our unwillingness to address the issue of race.  What about when the victims of torture are Muslims?  Where’s Holder’s courage then?

Surely, I was not the only one stunned by former vice president Dick Cheney’s public admission that he helped authorize waterboarding of detainees.  But, on reflection, there seems to have been a method to his madness; and, so far at least, the method seems to be working.

Have Holder and Colin Powell forgotten from their days growing up in the Bronx the typical reaction of bullies when caught in the act?  “Okay, so waddaya gonna do ‘bout it!”  It was an attempt at intimidation, and it was generally effective with those who felt not quite up to the challenge.

Looks very much as if Cheney sized up Holder correctly.  During his confirmation hearings, Holder manfully agreed with Sen. Patrick Leahy that waterboarding, which subjects a person to the panicked gag reflex of drowning, is torture.

But Holder has been out to lunch since then, no doubt leaving Cheney and his torture-friendly friends smirking at having been correct in taking the measure of the new attorney general.  Call it chutzpah, intimidation, bullying—whatever; it does seem to be working.

Cheney endorsing waterboarding; Holder labeling it torture; and—Hello?  Anyone home?  Deafening silence.

Never mind that Holder, like President Barack Obama, took a solemn oath to faithfully execute the laws of the land.  Why are they still afraid of Dick Cheney, whom even the neo-con editors of the Washington Post three and a half years ago branded “Vice President for Torture?”

Profile in Cowardice

Holder seems to be taking his cue from the pitiable Colin Powell, now traversing the country giving lucrative speeches on leadership.  Powell knew he was welcome in the club, or in this case the White House, only as long as he toed the line and was willing to offer up what was left of his reputation to the Bush/Cheney war effort.

True, in one brief spurt of behind-the-scenes assertiveness, Powell insisted that arch-prevaricator (and former CIA director) George Tenet sit behind him during Powell’s unforgettable/unforgivable speech at the UN on February 5, 2003.  Could he have been so unaware as to think this might somehow shame the shameless Tenet into coming clean about the cooked intelligence?

No way.  And he knew it.  Powell had already confided to then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the case against Iraq was what in the Bronx is called a “crock.”

I know Powell.  In the early 80’s, when he wore but one star as military assistant to the Secretary of Defense—and I was a CIA intelligence briefer—I used to do him the courtesy of pre-briefing him, to the extent I could, on what I was about to discuss during my early-morning one-on-ones with his boss, Casper Weinberger.  I found Powell to be anything but naïve.

He and I had a good bit in common—growing up at about the same time a mile from each other in the Bronx, “Distinguished Military Graduates” commissioned via Army R.O.T.C.—he from City College in 1958, I from Fordham in 1961.  Initially, I was blissfully unaware of the many times he had compromised himself—in doing Weinberger’s bidding on Iran-Contra, for example.  And so in 1989 I took a certain pride by association when Powell made it to the very top as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That pride quickly dissipated as I watched Powell kowtow to those bent on launching a war of aggression on Iraq.  Republican elder statesman James Baker, who was secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, has referred to Powell as the one person who could have stopped that war.  Baker is right.

Caving on Torture

More to the point, Colin Powell betrayed the US Army and the nation on the iconic issue of torture.

When he got a whiff of the tortured prose being served up to the president by the likes of Alberto Gonzales and David Addington to somehow make torture “legal,” Powell took the coward’s way out.  He had his lawyer get in touch with the Mafia-style lawyers in the White House to ask them please, could they please ask the president to reconsider his decision to exempt al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the protections of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Powell’s gentle demurral appears in a MEMORANUM FOR THE PRESIDENT, dated January 25, 2002, drafted by Addington but signed by Gonzales.  They did include Powell’s argument in a paragraph at the bottom of a list of “negative” consequences of ignoring Geneva:

“A determination that Geneva does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries.”

Powell got that right.  Too bad he did not have the courage of his convictions.  Too bad he lacked the guts to confront the president directly.

Too bad, for he is perhaps the one person who could have stopped the torture and the debasement of the army to which he owed so much.  Powell was unwilling to put into play the wide respect he still enjoyed, in order to stop a war of aggression and what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal called the accumulated evil inevitably springing from such a war (like, say, torture).  Instead, he opted to trade in that respect for the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

As the Executive Summary of the Senate Armed Services Committee report on torture, released on December 11, 2008, indicates, President George W. Bush threw in his lot with the early opinions of Addington and Gonzales.  (What most folks don’t realize is that this was before everyone’s favorite bête noir John Yoo and associates served up their ex post facto “justifications.”)

Incorporating Addington’s language of January 25, 2002, the president signed an executive order on February 7, 2002 that, in the words of the Senate committee, “opened the door” to torture.  I invite you to download both documents in their original format from the web.  (Don’t do it, though, unless you are prepared to feel deep shame for our country.)

Powell, one of the addressees of the Feb. 7 executive order, not only acquiesced but also let himself be sucked into a series of discussions in the White House situation room regarding which torture techniques might be most appropriate to apply to which “high-value” detainee.  Those are the sessions that one of the participants, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, referred to in commenting that “history will not be kind” to us.

What brings this painful flashback to mind is Rachel Maddow’s interview with Colin Powell on April 2.  Not surprisingly, he danced around her questions about the White House seminars on torture.  Most telling of all, however, Powell could not bring himself to admit, even now, that waterboarding is torture.

Chutzpah Squared

On Friday former undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, fabulous fabricator of the fabled Saddam Hussein-al-Qaeda connection, upped the ante in the “so-wattaya-gonna-do-‘bout-it” stakes, and held up to ridicule the timidity of Holder and the president.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Feith pretended to be shocked at the temerity of a Spanish court that seems on the verge of bringing criminal charges against Feith, Gonzales, Addington, John Yoo, and two other lawyers who served up the desired opinions on how the White House could make an end run around domestic and international law and approve the systematic torture of detainees.

Disregarding the provisions of international law that clearly do apply, Feith makes liberal use of reductio ad absurdum to “prove” that Spain has no jurisdiction to put Americans on trial for torture.

More important, Feith is so cocksure of himself that he throws down the gauntlet at the feet of the new administration:  “If President Barack Obama and the prosecutors see a crime to be prosecuted, they can act.”

What, I wonder, gives Feith such confidence that he will not one day rue having said that?  Has it been his watching of a long line of timid officials—both Democrats and Republicans—who lack the courage of their convictions?  Is it sheer contempt for the clear majority of American citizens who, polls show, support efforts to hold the Bush/Cheney administration accountable?

Clearly, the Cheneys and Feiths of this world are betting on Obama being cut of the same cloth as Powell and Holder.  The president will prove them right if it turns out that his oft-repeated “No one is above the law” proves to be just rhetoric.

And it will remain just rhetoric, if Obama delays much longer in ordering the reluctant Holder to appoint a nonpartisan, independent special prosecutor to bring the torturers to justice and end this shameful chapter in American history once and for all.

RAY McGOVERN works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington, DC.  He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso). He can be reached at:

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Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on  

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