Don't Let the Bush Administration Off the Hook For Torture

There's a new report out today from McClatchey on the CIA's torture program based on that Intelligence Committee report. They got a closer look at it than journalists have before, so there are some more details. But there's a danger in how this could be interpreted that will serve to let people who were complicit in the torture program off the hook, so we need to be careful about how we deal with this information. But first, here are their bullets:

  • The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.
  • The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.
  • The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  • The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General's Office.

And now to put this in context:

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods wouldn't breach the law because those applying them didn't have the specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering.

The Senate report, however, concluded that the Justice Department's legal analyses were based on flawed information provided by the CIA, which prevented a proper evaluation of the program's legality.

"The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program," the report found.

Several human rights experts said the conclusion called into question the program's legal foundations.

"Proper legal analysis" my ass. This paints a picture that is completely at odds with everything else we know about what was going on in the Bush administration at the time. The report would have us believe that Bush administration lawyers came up with a reasonable, well-grounded definition of torture that allowed the CIA to interrogate people in an "enhanced" way, but the CIA went rogue and tortured their prisoners. I'm sorry, but that's a joke.

The truth was this: the administration wanted to torture people. Lawyers in the White House Counsel's office, then run by Alberto Gonzales, wrote a series of memos justifying it, using positively laughable logic and arguments sending a clear message to any official who might have a prisoner in their custody that you could do just about anything you wanted to him, and we'll back you up by saying it wasn't really "torture." For instance, the infamous "Bybee memo" argued that it's only torture if you're acting with "specific intent" to cause pain and suffering, and if the causing of pain and suffering isn't the intent for its own sake, but rather that using the pain and suffering to extract information is your intent, then presto, you've only tortured with "general intent," and therefore you haven't actually tortured. Bybee also wrote that though the statute forbidding torture mentioned the infliction of "severe" pain, we could construe pain to be "severe" only if it rose "to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function." In other words, if I take a pair of pliers and tear out your fingernails, then I haven't actually inflicted "severe" pain on you, because you're still alive, your organs are intact, and you can still use your fingers. And therefore there hasn't been any torture.

And that wasn't even the only one; there was another infamous memo from John Yoo arguing that, in effect, if the president orders it, it's not torture. This is the kind of "legal guidance" the CIA was getting from the White House. So the idea that they just went too far and exceeded the legal justification for what they were doing is baloney. The CIA may have been lying about what kinds of intelligence the torture was yielding, and they may even have been lying about exactly what methods they were employing. But everything they did—every waterboarding session, every use of stress positions, every use of sleep deprivation, and even every impromptu beat-down that may have occurred—happened because George W. Bush, through the lawyers who reported to him, told the CIA that it was A-OK to torture prisoners.

Bureaucratic conflicts between agencies are certainly of interest to historians. But the last thing we should ever do is let a report like this make us absolve anyone of responsibility for the torture program. The President, the Vice-President, the lawyers, the CIA—they all dove into that moral sewer together.

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