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Powell: I Don’t Know Whether Torture ‘Would Be Considered Criminal’

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"Powell: I Don’t Know Whether Torture ‘Would Be Considered Criminal’"

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Last night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Unlike many journalists, Maddow asked him about — and pressed him repeatedly on — his role in approving torture against detainees. Specifically, she asked him about reports that he was among nine White House “principals” who approved torture techniques so specifically that “interrogation sessions were almost choreographed.”

Powell refused to acknowledge his role in these meetings, and claimed ignorance about long-released legal memos that specifically authorized torture. Choosing his words carefully, he would say only that, “at least from the State Department standpoint,” it was important to stand by the Geneva Conventions. Powell also questioned whether tactics like sleep deprivation, stress positions, or waterboarding were “criminal” — despite specific U.S. statutes and international law forbidding torture:

MADDOW: If there was a meeting though at which senior officials were saying, were discussing and giving the approval for sleep deprivation, stress positions, waterboarding. Were those officials committing crimes when they were giving their authorization?

POWELL: You’re asking me a legal question. I mean, I don’t know that any of these items would be considered criminal. And I will wait for whatever investigations that the government or the Congress intends to pursue with this.

Throughout the interview, Powell shirked any responsibility to account for his actions by deferring to hypothetical “investigations” or pointing to the unreleased — and possibly non-existent — “written record” of these meetings as providing the ultimate final word. As Maddow pointed, it’s unclear whether any such investigations will ever take place. Watch it:

Powell has gotten credit in the past for supposedly “breaking” with the Bush administration on the issue of torture. However, his refusal to even acknowledge centuries-long definitions of torture is a discouraging indication that he is more concerned with protecting himself legally than getting to the truth of America’s national disgrace.

Transcript:

RACHEL: On the issue of intelligence, tainted evidence, and those things, were you ever present at meetings at which the interrogation of prisoners, like Abu Zubaydah, other prisoners in those early days, where the interrogation was directed, where specific interrogations were approved? It has been reported on a couple of different sources that there were principals meetings to which you would have typically been there, where interrogations were almost play by play discussed.

POWELL: They were not play-by-play discussed, but there were conversations at senior level as to what could be done with respect to interrogation. I cannot go further because I don’t have knowledge of all the meetings that took place or what was discussed at each of those meetings and I think it’s going to have to be the written record of those meetings that will determine whether anything improper took place.

But it was always the case that, at least from the State Department standpoint, we should be consistent with the requirements of the Geneva Convention and that’s why this was such a controversial, controversial issue. But you’ll have to go — and in due course I think we all will go — to the written record of what memos were signed. I’m not sure what memos were signed or not signed. I didn’t have access to all of that information.

MADDOW: If there was a meeting though at which senior officials were saying, were discussing and giving the approval for sleep deprivation, stress positions, waterboarding. Were those officials committing crimes when they were giving their authorization?

POWELL: You’re asking me a legal question. I mean, I don’t know that any of these items would be considered criminal. And I will wait for whatever investigations that the government or the Congress intends to pursue with this.

MADDOW: There have been two Bush administration officials now who have said explicitly that what we did at Guantanamo was torture. One of them was the State Department general counsel for Guantanamo litigation, a man named, um, Vijay – excuse me – Padmanabhan.

POWELL: I don’t know him.

MADDOW: Also Susan Crawford, who heads up the military tribunals at Guantanamo. Both have said it was torture. Do you think that they are wrong? Do you feel like you have enough information to know if people were waterboarded, is that torture?

POWELL: I will let those who are making the legal determination of that make that judgment. Susan Crawford has made a statement and she is in a position of authority to make such a statement, has access to all the information. The lawyer you mentioned who is working in I guess in the legal advisor’s office in the State Department, but I don’t believe I know him, has made statements recently. What’s the basis for his statements and what meetings he was in and whether he was in Guantanamo I just don’t know.

MADDOW: I guess have to ask that — just a broader question about whether or not you have regrets, not about what the Bush administration did broadly in the years that you were secretary of state but the decisions that you participated in about interrogation, about torture, about the other things that are now so controversial —

POWELL: We had no meeting on torture. It is constantly said that the meetings – I had an issue with this – we had meetings on what torture to administer. What I recall, the meetings I was in, and I was not in all the meetings and I was not a author of many of the memos that have been written and some have come out and some have not come out. The only meetings I recall were where we talked about what is it we can do with respect to trying to get information from individuals who were in our custody. And I will just have to wait until the full written record is available and has been examined.

MADDOW: I don’t mean to press you on this to the point of discomfort, but there is an extent to which there is a legal discussion around this where everybody feels a little constrained by the legal terms and whether or not they are a legal professional. There is also the policy implications that you’ve been so eloquent about, in terms of what the implications are of these policies for the U.S. abroad in a continuing way. And you’ve been very optimistic in thinking that America still has a reservoir of good will around the world that we can call on regardless of these difficulties that we’ve had around these issues.

If specific interrogation techniques were being approved by people at the political level in the Cabinet, it doesn’t — the legal niceties of it almost become less important.

POWELL: I don’t know where these things were being approved at a political level.

MADDOW: If there a principals meeting at the White House to discuss interrogation techniques?

POWELL: It does not mean it was approved, anything was approved at a meeting.

MADDOW: OK.

POWELL: It depends on, did the meeting end up in a conclusion or was it just a briefing that then went to others to make a final decision on and to document. And so it is a legal issue and I think we have to be very careful and I have to be very careful because I don’t want to be seen as implicating anybody or accusing anybody because I don’t have the complete record on this. And that complete record I think in due course will come out.

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