In his first major interview since leaving the White House, former president George W. Bush defended the most controversial aspects of his tenure, including the use of waterboarding against terrorism suspects and the invasion of Iraq.
In an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC News, Mr Bush vigorously defended waterboarding, a kind of simulated drowning that was known as an “enhanced interrogation technique” by the Bush administration but regarded as “torture” by many opponents.
Waterboarding is a centuries-old practice used to coerce prisoners during interrogations by using water to cut off oxygen and to create both the feeling and fear of drowning.
It was approved by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush for use by the Central Intelligence Agency on so-called “high value” terrorism suspects, then barred by President Obama on his second day in office.
Interviewer Matt Lauer asked Bush why he believed that waterboarding was legal, a topic of significant dispute. “Because the lawyer said it was legal,” Bush replied. “He said it did not fall within the anti-torture act. I’m not a lawyer. But you gotta trust the judgment of people around you, and I do.”
In his book ‘Decision Points,’ published today, Bush insists the waterboarding practice is not torture, describing it instead as one of a number of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
The former president said the interrogation technique helped foil attacks on Heathrow airport, Canary Wharf and a number of US targets around the world. Bush said: “Three people were waterboarded and I believe that decision saved lives.”
Asked if he had authorised the use of the technique in the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Bush answered: “Damn right! We capture the guy, the chief operating officer of al-Qaida, who kills 3,000 people.”
“We felt he had the information about another attack. He says: ‘I’ll talk to you when I get my lawyer.’ I say: ‘What options are available and legal?'” In his memoir, Bush writes that waterboarding was highly effective, providing ‘large amounts of important information.’
“No doubt the procedure was tough, but medical experts assured the CIA that it did no lasting harm,” he writes. “I knew an interrogation programme this sensitive and controversial would one day become public.”
He continued: “When it did, we would open ourselves up to criticism that America had compromised our moral values. I would have preferred that we get the information another way. But the choice between security and values was real.”
“Their interrogations helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States.”
The technique was first approved for Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida figure arrested in Pakistan in 2002 who was suspected of involvement in a plot to attack Los Angeles International airport.”
Asked about allegations that lawyers had been pressurised into giving the president the answer he wanted to hear, Bush directed his critics to read the book. He gave an identical response when NBC interviewer Matt Lauer asked him whether it would be legal for another country to waterboard a captured US solider.
While Barack Obama has said the U.S. is no safer as a result of waterboarding and other forms of torture, George Bush insisted: “Using those techniques saved lives. My job was to protect America. And I did.”
In the 481-page book, Bush also shares his thoughts on the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and what he calls the ‘worst moment’ of his presidency.
Bush says the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, gave his administration a clear goal and him the resolve to find out who was responsible and “kick their ass.”
He describes his reaction when his then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice informed him of the crash of a third airplane into the Pentagon.
“I sat back in my seat and absorbed her words. My thoughts clarified: The first plane could have been an accident. The second was definitely an attack. The third was a declaration of war,” the former president writes.
In the book, Bush also recounts the government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He calls the response “not only flawed” but “unacceptable,” and describes his own failures in this way: “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.”
“I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide,” he added.
Bush writes he also failed to “adequately communicate my concern for the victims of Katrina.” He added: “Yet many of our citizens, particularly in the African-American community, came away convinced their president didn’t care about them.”
The former president also told in the interview that the “worst moment” of his administration was when rapper Kanye West declared during a Katrina celebrity telethon that “George Bush does not like black people.”
Kanye West has expressed a sympathetic view of Bush’s reaction to the comment. Bush writes the Katrina had a lasting legacy on his second term.
“Just as Katrina was more than a hurricane, its impact was more than physical destruction. It eroded citizens’ trust in their government. It exacerbated divisions in our society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term.”
In the memoir, Bush also compliments Obama’s political skills during a meeting before the 2008 election as the financial crisis was coming to a head. He criticizes the performance of his party’s nominee, John McCain, in the same meeting.
In recent years, Bush has talked about his past problems with alcohol abuse and his 1986 decision to give up drinking completely. Just days before the 2000 presidential election, news broke that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976.
In his memoir, Bush writes: “Not disclosing the DUI on my terms may have been the single costliest political mistake I ever made.” He says he had decided against doing so because he didn’t want to undermine his admonitions to his daughters about drinking and driving.
After the news came out – so close to the election day, Bush writes in his book that he went to bed that night on the campaign trail thinking: “I may have just cost myself the presidency.” [via Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC]