Worse than Watergate: Bob Woodward's torture scoop


John Dean, the Watergate scandal figure who's enjoyed a second act as a civil libertarian, wrote a book a couple of years ago about the myriad abuses of the Bush administration called "Worse Than Watergate." That title begs the question of whether more aggressive journalism like that practiced during the Nixon years might have prevented some of Bush and Cheney's more outrageous offenses.

That's why it was striking to see the byline on the Washington Post's scoop this morning that a U.S. government official acknowledged that a high-level al-Qaida detainee was "tortured." The story was penned by Bob Woodward -- yes, that Bob Woodward, so maybe the circle really is closing.

He writes:

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a "life-threatening condition."

"We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani," said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense, is the first senior Bush administration official responsible for reviewing practices at Guantanamo to publicly state that a detainee was tortured.

We've covered this ground before, but if it can be proved in court that Mohammed al-Qahtani took part in the 9-11 plot, planning to kill innocent American secretaries and accountants in cold blood in the name of some kind of warped "holy" war, than what he deserves is harsh punishment, and what those people so tragically affected by the 2001 attacks is justice. But it needs to be American punishment and American justice, in the style that once made this nation a model for the rest of the world -- not the two-bit dictator tactics championed by Cheney and his minions.

Because now -- thanks to Cheney's Jack Bauer-inspired wet dreams -- it may be impossible to try al-Qahtani for 9/11:

Military prosecutors said in November that they would seek to refile charges against Qahtani, 30, based on subsequent interrogations that did not employ harsh techniques. But Crawford, who dismissed war crimes charges against him in May 2008, said in the interview that she would not allow the prosecution to go forward.

Who's ultimately to blame for this travesty? Crawford made it clear to Woodward -- she said: "I think the buck stops in the Oval Office." And now Barack Obama is going to leave it crumpled up on the floor.