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Context of 'February 4, 2005: Acting Office of Legal Cousel Chief Withdraws Torture Memo'

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Jack Goldsmith, the new head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see October 6, 2003), finds himself embroiled in a huge, if secretive, controversy over Justice Department lawyer John Yoo’s torture memos (see January 9, 2002 and January 25, 2002). Yoo, who wrote the original memos over former OLC chief Jay Bybee’s signature, had placed the OLC in the position of asserting that torture can indeed be used against terror suspects. Goldsmith disagrees, feeling that Yoo’s definitions of torture are far too narrow and give far too much latitude to US interrogators. He also believes that Yoo’s assertions of near-unchecked presidential power to authorize torture—at the direct expense of Congressional and judicial oversight—has no legal basis. And, Goldsmith worries, the opinions could be interpreted as a clumsy, “tendentious” attempt to protect Bush officials from criminal charges. The conflict between Goldsmith and Yoo will cost the two men their friendship. “I was basically taking steps to fix the mistakes of a close friend, who I knew would be mad about it,” Goldsmith will recall in 2007. “We don’t talk anymore, and that’s one of the many sad things about my time in government.” Goldsmith decides to withdraw the follow-up March 2003 torture memo, and tells White House officials they cannot rely on it any longer. Actually doing so proves a tricky business. [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
'Serious, Serious Problems' - Goldsmith will say in September 2007: “As soon as I absorbed the opinions I realized… that my reaction to them was a big problem. The Office of Legal Counsel rarely overturns its prior opinions, and even more rarely does so within an administration, and even more rarely than that, in the same administration about something this important. I didn’t find any precedent for it. And I did not want to do anything to affect either the programs or the underlying opinions. But they were serious, serious problems, and I knew if and when I was asked to stand by them that I would have a very hard time doing so.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
Pressure from Abu Ghraib Scandal - The legal and bureaucratic niceties of withdrawing the memos become moot when, in April 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks (see Mid-April 2004), and when in June 2004, the first memo is leaked to the media. “After the leak, there was a lot of pressure on me within the administration to stand by the opinion,” he later says, “and the problem was that I had decided six months earlier that I couldn’t stand by the opinion.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007] “I had determined that the analysis was flawed,” he will recall. “But I hadn’t determined the underlying techniques were illegal. After Abu Ghraib, there was enormous pressure for me to stand by the decisions… and I couldn’t do so. I had already made up my mind many months earlier and I wasn’t about to change it. But I struggled for several days with what the consequences might be of withdrawing the opinion, because I wasn’t in the position to make an independent ruling on the other techniques. I certainly didn’t think they were unlawful, but I couldn’t get an opinion that they were lawful either. So I struggled to repudiate the flawed opinion while not causing massive disruption and fright throughout the counterterrorism world related to interrogation. And I ultimately decided that I had to withdraw those and under suspicions, stand by it, because it was so thoroughly flawed.” [Newsweek, 9/8/2007]
White House Resists Change - Though Goldsmith has the support of his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Ashcroft’s deputy, James Comey, and his own deputy, Patrick Philbin, he knows the White House will fight the withdrawal. Goldsmith will decide to issue the withdrawal and then resign his position (see June 17, 2004), effectively forcing the administration to either quietly accept the withdrawal, or fight it and make his resignation a media circus. “If the story had come out that the US government decided to stick by the controversial opinions that led the head of the Office of Legal Counsel to resign, that would have looked bad,” he later recalls. “The timing was designed to ensure that the decision stuck.” Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief aide, David Addington, among other White House officials, is furious over the withdrawal of the torture opinion (interestingly, White House counsel and future attorney general Alberto Gonzales will modify his own opposition to the withdrawals later, telling Goldsmith in 2007, “I guess those opinions really were as bad as you said”). [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]
Expansion of Presidential Power - Addington asks Goldsmith incredulously, “Why are you trying to give away the president’s power?” Like Cheney, Addington believes, in Goldsmith’s words, “that the very act of asking for Congress’s help would imply, contrary to the White House line, that the president needed legislative approval and could not act on his own. The president’s power would diminish, Addington thought, if Congress declined its support once asked, especially if it tried to restrict presidential power in some way. Congress had balked, during the month after 9/11, at giving the president everything he had asked for in the Congressional authorization to use force and the Patriot Act. Things would only be worse in 2004 and beyond, Addington believed.” Addington’s two questions are always, Goldsmith writes, “‘Do we have the legal power to do it ourselves?’ (meaning on the president’s sole authority), and ‘Might Congress limit our options in ways that jeopardize American lives?’” While Goldsmith and his colleagues agree that the president has the power, and that seeking Congressional approval might tie the White House’s hands more so than the administration is willing to accept, Goldsmith worries that an unfavorable Supreme Court decision would undercut Bush’s authority much more so than any restrictions passed by a compliant, Republican-led Congress. Addington sees things in very simple terms: ”“We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop,” Addington says on several occasions. Addington tells Goldsmith, “Now that you’ve withdrawn legal opinions that the president of the United States has been relying on, I need you to go through all of [the OLC terror memos] and let me know which ones you still stand by.” Goldsmith will do just that, further angering Addington. [Savage, 2007, pp. 184; Slate, 9/11/2007]
Absolute Power Required to Defend Nation - Goldsmith later writes: “He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president’s strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies. They believed cooperation and compromise signaled weakness and emboldened the enemies of America and the executive branch. When it came to terrorism, they viewed every encounter outside the innermost core of most trusted advisers as a zero-sum game that if they didn’t win they would necessarily lose.” [Slate, 9/11/2007]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), James B. Comey Jr., David S. Addington, Patrick F. Philbin, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Daniel Levin, Jack Goldsmith, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jack Goldsmith, once considered a rising star in the Bush administration (see October 6, 2003), resigns under fire from his position as chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). In his nine-month tenure, Goldsmith fought against the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, its advocacy of torture, and its policy of extrajudicial detention and trial for terror suspects. Goldsmith will not discuss his objections to the administration’s policy initiatives until September 2007, when he will give interviews to a variety of media sources in anticipation of the publication of his book, The Terror Presidency. Goldsmith led a small, in-house revolt of administration lawyers against what they considered to be the constitutional excesses of the legal policies advocated by the administration in its war on terrorism. “I was disgusted with the whole process and fed up and exhausted,” he will recall. Goldsmith chooses to remain quiet about his resignation, and as a result, his silence will be widely misinterpreted by media, legal, and administration observers. Some even feel that Goldsmith should be investigated for his supposed role in drafting the torture memos (see January 9, 2002, August 1, 2002, and December 2003-June 2004) that he had actually opposed. “It was a nightmare,” Goldsmith will recall. “I didn’t say anything to defend myself, except that I didn’t do the things I was accused of.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007] Goldsmith will not leave until the end of July, and will take a position with the Harvard University Law School. Unlike many other Justice Department officials, he will not be offered a federal judgeship, having crossed swords with White House lawyers too many times. [Savage, 2007, pp. 191]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Daniel Levin.Daniel Levin. [Source: ABC News]Daniel Levin, the acting chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), goes to a military base near Washington and has himself subjected to simulated waterboarding to judge for himself whether or not the interrogation tactic is torture. Levin then tells White House officials that he found the experience terrifying, and he is sure it simulates drowning. Levin concludes that waterboarding clearly qualifies as torture and should not be used by US personnel except in a highly limited and closely supervised fashion. Levin, who like his predecessor Jack Goldsmith (see June 17, 2004) is deeply troubled by the White House’s advocacy of torture as a method of securing information from terror suspects, and by its refusal to issue clear guidelines as to what is and what is not torture, decides to prepare a memo—legally binding—to replace the August 2002 Justice Department memo that established torture as an acceptable method of interrogation. Goldsmith had already withdrawn the memo after finding it deeply flawed (see December 2003-June 2004). In December 2004, Levin issues his new memo, which flatly states that “[t]orture is abhorrent” (see December 30, 2004), but he notes that the Justice Department is not declaring any previous positions by the administration illegal. Levin is planning a second memo that will impose tighter restrictions on specific interrogation techniques, but he never gets the chance to complete it. New attorney general Alberto Gonzales forces him out of the department instead, and replaces him with a much more compliant OLC chief, Steven Bradbury (see June 23, 2005). Most experts believe that waterboarding is indeed torture, and that torture is a poor way of extracting accurate information. Retired Rear Admiral John Hutson will say, “There is no question this is torture—this is a technique by which an individual is strapped to a board, elevated by his feet and either dunked into water or water poured over his face over a towel or a blanket.” [ABC News, 11/2/2007; Think Progress, 11/3/2007; GulfNews, 11/5/2007] Gonzales is widely believed to have been selected as the new attorney general in part to ease the way for the Bush administration to continue its support for torture as a valid method of interrogation. Shortly after taking the office, Gonzales pressured Levin to add the footnote exculpating the administration from any legal responsibility for its previous positions, and shortly thereafter, Gonzales has Levin removed from the department. In November 2007, the Washington Post’s editorial board will decry Gonzales’s ouster of Levin, and the administration’s support for torture, as a blatant “disregard for principle.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2007] MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, a harsh critic of the Bush administration, will later call Levin “an astonishingly patriotic American and a brave man.” He will fire a broadside directly at the president: “Daniel Levin should have a statue in his honor in Washington right now. Instead, he was forced out as acting assistant attorney general nearly three years ago because he had the guts to do what George Bush couldn’t do in a million years: actually put himself at risk for the sake of his country, for the sake of what is right.” [MSNBC, 11/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, US Department of Justice, Steven Bradbury, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Daniel Levin, Bush administration (43), Keith Olbermann, George W. Bush, John D. Hutson, Jack Goldsmith, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Daniel Levin, the outgoing chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC—see Late 2004-Early 2005), sends a memo to Deputy Attorney General James Comey. The memo will remain secret, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will learn that it provides legal advice on communications between defense attorneys and detainees in combatant status review tribunals. [ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, Daniel Levin, James B. Comey Jr., Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department issues a 17-page memo which officially replaces the August 2002 memo (see August 1, 2002), which asserted that the president’s wartime powers supersede international anti-torture treaties and defined torture very narrowly, describing it as a tactic that produces pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” The new memo, authored by acting chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin, is ostensibly meant to deflect criticisms that the Bush administration condones torture. In fact, the very first sentence reads, “Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.” But the White House insists that the new memo does not represent a change in policy because the administration has always respected international laws prohibiting the mistreatment of prisoners. The primary concern of the new memo is to broaden the narrow definition of torture that had been used in the August memo. Levin adopts the definition of torture used in Congressional anti-torture laws, which says that torture is the infliction of physical suffering, “even if it does not involve severe physical pain.” But the pain must still be more than “mild and transitory,” the memo says. Like the original memo, Levin says that torture may include mental suffering. But to be considered so it would not have to last for months or years, as OLC lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo had asserted two years earlier. The most contested conclusions of the August 2002 memo—concerning the president’s wartime powers and potential legal defense for US personnel charged with war crimes—are not addressed in the Levin memo. “Consideration of the bounds of any such authority would be inconsistent with the president’s unequivocal directive that United States personnel not engage in torture,” the memo says. [US Department of Justice, 12/30/2004 pdf file; Associated Press, 12/31/2004]
National Security Not a Justification for Torture - The memo also attempts to quell concerns that the administration believes national security may be used as justification for tactics that could be considered as torture. It states, “[A] defendant’s motive (to protect national security, for example) is not relevant to the question whether he has acted with the requisite specific intent under the statute.” [US Department of Justice, 12/30/2004 pdf file]
Memo Divided White House Officials - Many in the White House opposed the issuance of the memo, but were rebuffed when other administration officials said the memo was necessary to ease the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
Torture Opponents Disappointed - Civil libertarians and opponents of torture within the Justice Department are sharply disappointed in the memo. While it gives a marginally less restrictive definition of the pain required to qualify as torture, and gives no legal defenses to anyone who might be charged with war crimes, it takes no position on the president’s authority to override interrogation laws and treaties, and finds that all the practices previously employed by the CIA and military interrogators were and are legal. Yoo will later write that “the differences in the opinions were for appearances’ sake. In the real world of interrogation policy, nothing had changed. The new opinion just reread the statute to deliberately blur the interpretation of torture as a short-term political maneuver in response to public criticism.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 196-197]
Secret Memo Will Allow Waterboarding; Dissidents Purged - A secret memo is completed a short time later that allows such torture techniques as waterboarding to be used again (see February 2005). The Levin memo triggers a department-wide “purge” of dissidents and torture opponents; some will resign voluntarily, while others will resign after being denied expected promotions. [Savage, 2007, pp. 197]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Bush administration (43), Daniel Levin, Alberto R. Gonzales, Jay S. Bybee, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The acting chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Daniel Levin, sends a memo to William J. Haynes, the chief counsel for the Defense Department, advising Haynes that he is withdrawing the Justice Department’s March 2003 memo that justified certain “harsh” methods of interrogation of prisoners in US custody. Levin, writing in carefully couched legal language, says that many of the interrogation methods currently in use by US interrogators are not within the legal parameters for interrogation—in other words, the methods qualify as torture under US law. [US Department of Justice, 2/4/2005 pdf file] Levin recently underwent a simulated waterboarding session to determine for himself if the practice qualified as torture, and determined that it did so. He will shortly be relieved of his position in the Justice Department, and the administration will continue its support for waterboarding and other “harsh” methods of interrogation (see Late 2004-Early 2005).

Entity Tags: Daniel Levin, William J. Haynes, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Steven Bradbury.Steven Bradbury. [Source: Mark Wilson / Getty Images]Steven Bradbury is nominated by President Bush to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). He will continue in that position on an acting basis into 2008, even though Congressional Democrats refuse to confirm him for the job, and even though his continuation in the post violates the Vacancies Reform Act, which precludes non-confirmed appointees for holding their positions for over 210 days (see October 16, 2007). [Washington Times, 9/20/2007; New York Times, 10/4/2007; TPM Muckraker, 10/19/2007] Bradbury takes over from Jack Goldsmith, who resigned the position under fire (see June 17, 2004).
Arm of the White House - Bradbury has a long history of supporting the White House’s agenda of expansive executive power. He came to the Justice Department after clerking with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and mentoring under former Whitewater special counsel Kenneth Starr. [New York Times, 10/4/2007] A co-founder of the Federalist Society [International Herald Tribune, 10/15/2007] , he is as staunchly conservative as any Bush appointee, but unlike some of the more outspoken of his colleagues, he comes across as low-key, pragmatic, and non-confrontational. As a Justice Department lawyer, Bradbury proved himself in line with the neoconservative views of Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington. Former State Department senior official Philip Zelikow recalls Bradbury as being “fundamentally sympathetic to what the White House and the CIA wanted to do.” Bradbury was brought in to the OLC in part to rein in that office, which under its previous head Jack Goldsmith became the hub of the internal opposition to Bush’s policies of “enhanced interrogation” and domestic surveillance (see Late 2003-2005). In 2005, Bradbury signs two secret Justice Department memos giving broad authorization and legal justification for the CIA’s torture of terrorist suspects (see February 2005 and Late 2005),. Bradbury works closely with then-White House counsel and current attorney general Alberto Gonzales to bring the Justice Department back into line with White House demands. Conservative legal scholar Douglas Kmiec, who headed the OLC under former presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, says he believes the intense pressures from the current administration’s campaign against terrorism has warped the OLC’s proper role. “The office was designed to insulate against any need to be an advocate,” Kmiec says. Now the OLC has “lost its ability to say no.… The approach changed dramatically with opinions on the war on terror. The office became an advocate for the president’s policies.”
Probation - Bradbury was first considered for the job after Gonzales, newly confirmed as attorney general, rejected the idea of promoting Daniel Levin, the acting head of the OLC after Goldsmith’s departure. Gonzales considered Levin unsuitable for the job because of his independence and support for Goldsmith’s dissents. Instead, Gonzales chose Bradbury for the job. But the White House was uncertain of Bradbury’s reliability, and so placed him on a sort of “internal trial,” monitored by Gonzales’s replacement at the White House, Harriet Miers. Miers judged Bradbury’s loyalty to the president and his willingness to work with Gonzales in justifying White House policy decisions. Bradbury reportedly understands that his “probation” is intended for him to show just how compliant and supportive he is of the White House, and he soon wins the confidence of the White House by completely aligning himself with Addington. [New York Times, 10/4/2007]
'Sordid criminal conspiracy' - Harper’s Magazine commentator and lawyer Scott Horton will write in November 2007 that it is obvious “Bradbury was picked for one reason: to provide continuing OLC cover for the torture conspirators.… The Justice Department’s strategy has been to cloak Bradbury’s torture memoranda in secrecy classifications and then to lie aggressively about their very existence.… This episode demonstrates once more the intimate interrelationship between the policies of torture, secrecy, and the right to lie to the public and the courts in the interests of shielding the Bush administration from public embarrassment. And once more the Justice Department is enlisted not in the enforcement of the law, but rather in a sordid criminal conspiracy.” [Harper's, 11/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Kenneth Starr, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, National Security Agency, Philip Zelikow, US Department of Justice, Steven Bradbury, Scott Horton, Vacancies Reform Act, James B. Comey Jr., Jack Goldsmith, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Harper’s Magazine, Clarence Thomas, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), Daniel Levin, Alberto R. Gonzales, Harriet E. Miers, Geneva Conventions, Douglas Kmiec, David S. Addington, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A simulation of waterboarding arranged by ABC News.A simulation of waterboarding arranged by ABC News. [Source: ABC News]According to an ABC News report in September 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden bans the use of waterboarding some time in 2006, with the approval of the White House. It is not known when exactly the technique is banned that year, but presumably it takes place after Hayden becomes CIA director (see May 5, 2006) and in response to the Supreme Court decision mandating that terror suspects must be given treatment consistent with the Geneva Conventions (see July 12, 2006). Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning and is usually referred to as torture. Allegedly, the CIA last used waterboarding in 2003 on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and “It is believed that waterboarding was used on fewer than five ‘high-value’ terrorist subjects” (see May 2002-2003). John Sifton of Human Rights Watch later says the ban “a good thing, but the fact remains that the entire [CIA interrogation] program is illegal.” [ABC News, 9/14/2007] Over a year before Hayden’s decision, Justice Department official Daniel Levin had himself subjected to simulated waterboarding to help him determine if waterboarding was indeed torture (see Late 2004-Early 2005). Levin intended to issue a memo condemning the practice as beyond the bounds of the law, but was forced out of the Justice Department before he could make that ruling.

Entity Tags: Daniel Levin, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, White House, Central Intelligence Agency, John Sifton, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Michael Hayden, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

In his first exit interview after the November 2008 elections, Vice President Dick Cheney unapologetically acknowledges that the US used waterboarding on suspected terrorists, and says that the Guantanamo Bay prison should remain open until terrorism has been eradicated. Methods such as waterboarding were indeed used on at least one subject, suspected 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see May 2002-2003, Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003, March 7 - Mid-April, 2003, After March 7, 2003, and May 2003), Cheney says, but he goes on to claim that those methods do not constitute torture. “On the question of so-called torture, we don’t do torture,” he says. “We never have. It’s not something that this administration subscribes to. I think those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.” Asked if he authorized the waterboarding of Mohammed, Cheney says: “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency [CIA] in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.” Cheney says that waterboarding Mohammed produced critically important information: “There was a period of time there, three or four years ago, when about half of everything we knew about al-Qaeda came from that one source. So it’s been a remarkably successful effort. I think the results speak for themselves.” Cheney adds that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were justified regardless of whether that nation possessed weapons of mass destruction. The only thing US intelligence got wrong, he says, “was that there weren’t any stockpiles. What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stock.” [ABC News, 12/15/2008; ABC News, 12/15/2008] In the US, waterboarding has been considered a war crime at least as far back as World War II (see 1947, January 21, 1968, and November 29, 2007); in 2007, a judge concurred (see November 4, 2007). A former senior Justice Department official determined that waterboarding is torture (see Late 2004-Early 2005), as did a former deputy secretary of state who was subjected to waterboarding as part of his military training (see January 21, 2009) and a US senator who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam (see April 20, 2009). The CIA suspended the use of waterboarding in 2005 after determining that the technique was most likely ineffective and certainly illegal (see Shortly After April 28, 2004-February 2005), and banned it entirely in 2006 (see Between May and Late 2006); the CIA’s Inspector General determined that the practice was torture (see March 6, 2009). The FBI and DIA have forbidden their agents from using the technique (see May 13, 2004 and February 7, 2008). The US military banned its use in 2006 (see September 6, 2006). The king of Saudi Arabia will accuse the Bush administration of torturing prisoners in its custody (see April 24, 2009). The information derived from torturing Mohammed and other prisoners is widely considered unreliable (see August 6, 2007, April 16, 2009, December 18, 2008, and March 29, 2009), and may well have been initially designed to elicit false confessions (see April 22, 2009).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Saddam Hussein, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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