As George W Bush defends the use of “waterboarding” for saving British lives, Channel 4’s Job Rabkin looks at the former US president’s defiance and regrets from his time in office.
Americans often muse about how George W Bush was the candidate you’d like to have a few beers with. The boozy hard living drinker who found God. The folksy Texan who got his words jumbled up. The regular guy who was oh-so-different from his patrician opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry.
But in the course of his presidency that narrative was displaced by another – of a gung-ho neocon, who dragged America into two disastrous wars, mounted a full fronted assault on civil liberties and international law, and left the US economy and the global financial system in tatters as he was helicoptered off the White House lawn.
“Damn Right! Had I not authorised waterboarding on senior al Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk that the country would be attacked.” George W. Bush, former US president
President Bush’s memoirs, Decision Points, which is published in the US today, predictably tries to dispel that shroud of failure. It attempts to paint Bush as a forward thinking and resolute leader and to explain the President’s thinking over the key issues that defined his presidency – 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis.
On all those issues, the basic message is simple – I tried my best, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. “I had always done what I believed was right,” Mr Bush declares.
So begins the defence. On Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Bush insists he believed they were a genuine threat. “No one was more shocked and angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons,” he says. “I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”
He does show remorse about the claims made on WMD. “I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false.” But he insists, the US and the world is safer without Saddam Hussein.
“Removing Saddam from power was the right decision…. for all the difficulties that followed, America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD and supporting terror at the heart of the Middle East.”
If anything, his biggest regret about Iraq was the decision to draw down US troops shortly after the invasion.
“We did not respond quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s fall,” he writes.
“Cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure in the execution of the war.”
Bush still maintains that America was right to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected terrorists, and to hold them in the notorious jail at Guantanamo Bay. When he was asked whether America should waterboard Al Qaeda prisoners like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Mr Bush writes:
“I thought about my duty to protect my country from another act of terror. ‘Damn right’ I said.”
“Had I not authorised waterboarding on senior al Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk that the country would be attacked.”
In an interview with the Times, Bush says the use of waterboarding helped prevent terror attacks in London as well.
Downing Street: waterboarding is torture
The British government has rejected claims by George W Bush that the use of waterboarding is not classified as torture.
"It comes under that definition in our view," a No. 10 spokeswoman said.
In a speech last month, the Chief of MI6 Sir John Sawers also condemned the interrogation method, describing it as "illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances".
He insisted that his service had "nothing whatsoever" to do with torture.
"If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we're required by UK and international law to avoid that action, and we do, even though that allows that terrorist activity to go ahead.
"Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives," Mr Sawers said.
Of conditions at Guantanamo, where many detainees were held for years without legal recourse, the President points out things were not so bad. After all, each prisoner got his own “personal copy” of the Koran; and even had access to a library which included “an Arabic translation of Harry Potter.”
Despite his best efforts, the book fails to dispel the image of a slightly chaotic administration, with a strangely detached and passive leader at its head. Writing of the slide into chaos in Iraq in 2004 and open feuding among his national security team, Bush says he wanted to fire defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld but just couldn’t find anyone to replace him. So he simply left him in position, with disastrous consequences.
Only years later – and thousands of Americans dead and injured in Iraq – did a friend suggest Robert Gates as a choice. “Why hadn’t I thought of Bob?” the President wonders.
The book paints a distinct picture of a man seemingly at a loss at how to cope with events. Again and again, the President complains of being “blindsided”. Blindsided over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Blindsided on secret surveillance being carried out by his own Justice Department. And blindsided by the financial crisis.
“I had no idea how graphic or grotesque the photos [of Abu Ghraib] would be,” he writes. “The first time I saw them was the day they were aired on ’60 Minutes II.”
On the financial crisis he says, “we were blindsided by a financial crisis that had been more than a decade in the making”. His economic outlook he says “had been kitchen-table economic issues like jobs and inflation. I assumed any major credit troubles would have been flagged by the regulators or rating agencies.”
It’s a theme that comes up again in his account of Hurricane Katrina. Bush himself paints a picture of prevarication and indecision. “The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.” In subsequent interviews this week, Bush has said that nothing hurts him more than the accusation that his failure to act after the storm was because he didn’t “care about black people” in Kanye West’s immortal words. “I resent it. It was not true. And it was one of the low points of my presidency.”
Khalid Sheik Mohammed was one of three al-Qaeda suspects subjected to waterboarding, alongside Saudi Arabia-born Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of co-ordinating a suicide attack on USS Cole in Aden.
The three men were also the only Guantanamo Bay detainees out of 14 people interviewed for a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), released in 2007, who said they had been subject to the technique.
In his memoirs, George Bush refers to approving "waterboarding" first on Abu Zubaydah in 2002 - the same year Mr Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan.
Mr Zubaydah told the ICRC: "I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress."
It was confessions gained through waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is believed to be one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks, which President Bush said led to lives being saved in the UK. Mr Mohammed was moved to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, but told the ICRC that he had been subject to waterboarding in his third place of detention.
What evidence was obtained from the detainees in this way is unclear. At a later hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheik Mohammed confessed to 31 plots including attacks on Heathrow, Big Ben and Canary Wharf. He said his statement was not made under duress, but some onlookers have questioned how plausible that is.
In February 2003, tanks were stationed around Heathrow Airport and nearby flight paths as 450 troops and some 1,700 extra police officers were brought in over fears of a terrorist attack. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was arrested a month later.
The jury in the trial heard some members of the conspiracy discussed targeting Heathrow and Canary Wharf as well as nuclear power stations and oil and gas terminals.
The airport was also the departure point for the so-called liquid bomb plot, in which a London-based al-Qaeda-inspired cell plotted to board transatlantic jets with novel home-made devices.
In November 2006, al-Qaeda plotter Dhiren Barot was jailed for life for plotting to destroy tower blocks by parking limousines loaded with gas cylinders in a basement car park.
Reprieve's Director Clive Stafford Smith said the former President "boasts of secret, unverifiable benefits he achieved through torture, that only he may know, and the rest of us should take on faith".
What is clear is just how powerful the men under the President actually were – in particular Vice President Dick Cheney. In one of the few revelations in the book, Bush admits he actually considered dumping Cheney as vice president altogether in 2004 to “demonstrate that I was in charge”. Cheney he says “was seen as dark and heartless – the Darth Vader of the administration.”
But again, Bush demurred. “The more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt Dick should stay. I hadn’t picked him to be a political asset; I had chosen him to help me do the job. That was exactly what he had done.”
The two came to blows later on when Cheney’s close aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was found guilty on four counts of felony in 2007 for leaking the name of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, to the press. Bush again prevaricated on whether to grant Libby a pardon – so much so that an exasperated Laura Bush told him: “Just make up your mind. You’re ruining this for everyone.”
Eventually Bush opted not to pardon and admits Cheney lashed out at him in private. “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield,” he told Bush. The President writes: “In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to it.”
Giving up drink
If anything, the most interesting parts of the book deal with Bush’s personal relationship with his father – and his admission that giving up drink was one of the most important events of his life. He wasn’t a drunk he claims but he was a drinker, and sometimes that led him to say “stupid” things.
Once he got drunk at his parent’s dinner table with his wife. “And I’m sitting next to a beautiful woman, a friend of Mother and Dad’s,” he recalled. “And I said to her out loud, ‘What is sex like after 50?'” He says the same woman wrote to him when he was Governor of Texas, and asked him if had discovered the answer.
President Bush says he’s happy with his life now and has no regrets. But occasionally normal life can be a shock – like when he walks the dog in his Dallas suburb.
“Barney spotted our neighbour’s lawn, where he promptly took care of his business. There I was, the former President of the United States, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years.”