WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Thursday made public detailed memos describing brutal interrogation techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency, as President Obama sought to reassure the agency that the C.I.A. operatives involved would not be prosecuted.
In dozens of pages of dispassionate legal prose, the methods approved by the Bush administration for extracting information from senior operatives of Al Qaeda are spelled out in careful detail — like keeping detainees awake for up to 11 straight days, placing them in a dark, cramped box or putting insects into the box to exploit their fears.
The interrogation methods were authorized beginning in 2002, and some were used as late as 2005 in the C.I.A.’s secret overseas prisons. The techniques were among the Bush administration’s most closely guarded secrets, and the documents released Thursday afternoon were the most comprehensive public accounting to date of the program.
Some senior Obama administration officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., have labeled one of the 14 approved techniques, waterboarding, illegal torture. The United States prosecuted some Japanese interrogators at war crimes trials after World War II for
Together, the four memos give an extraordinarily detailed account of the C.I.A.’s methods and the Justice Department’s long struggle, in the face of graphic descriptions of brutal tactics, to square them with international and domestic law. Passages describing forced nudity, the slamming of detainees into walls, prolonged sleep deprivation and the dousing of detainees with water as cold as 41 degrees alternate with elaborate legal arguments concerning the international Convention Against Torture.
You can read the memos here. It’s really disturbing stuff, and it’s quite honestly humiliating — the United States’ status as some sort of moral beacon faded long ago (if it ever existed), but certainly we’re supposed to be better than this. And while I’m not a big fan of punitive punishment, the lack of accountability here is startling:
Within minutes of the release of the memos, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the memos illustrated the need for his proposed independent commission of inquiry, which would offer immunity in return for candid testimony.
Mr. Obama condemned what he called a “dark and painful chapter in our history” and said that the interrogation techniques would never be used again. But he also repeated his opposition to a lengthy inquiry into the program, saying that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
A dark chapter in our history? The past? Sure, it is “past” insofar as four years ago is “the past,” but come on now — it’s hardly so far back in history that we should close the book on it and move on. It just happened. Many of the people who authorized and implemented these procedures are still in positions of power; none of them, as far as I know, have had to pay any penance for the crimes they committed or encouraged.
Of course, it’s not so easy to pinpoint exactly who should be paying penance, and for what. The people who actually carried out the torture did so under orders from above; they were told that they had the legal go-ahead. The lawyers who wrote the memos certainly came to some reprehensible conclusions, but they weren’t the policy-makers or the order-givers, even if they knew that their recommendations would translate into policy. I personally believe that the buck stops at the highest levels of power — clearly the higher-ups in the Bush administration not only knew what was going on, but pushed their legal experts to come to these conclusions. In doing so, they put American citizens in legally precarious situations — for all their America-loving talk, they encouraged CIA operatives to commit war crimes, and opened all of those people up to potential prosecution. It doesn’t look like the CIA officers are going to be prosecuted, but they were put in a very troublesome situation — and many of them did very troublesome things.
Mr. Obama said that C.I.A. officers who were acting on the Justice Department’s legal advice would not be prosecuted, but he left open the possibility that anyone who acted without legal authorization could still face criminal penalties. He did not address whether lawyers who authorized the use of the interrogation techniques should face some kind of penalty.
I hope some sort of investigation is launched, but I also hope that we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. I obviously don’t have a ton of sympathy for torturers, but I’m also not sure that they guy working at a prison in Aghanistan, who’s being told by everyone from the President of the United States on down to use “harsh” techniques in order to get information from detainees, and who is operating under significant personal stress in an organization that relies heavily on hierarchy, is the person who should be held ultimately accountable. I would much rather see the people who were in positions of real power and authority have to answer for this.
The New York Times offers a round-up of blog and op/ed opinionson the torture memos. It’s well worth a read.