By Gene Healy
On Thursday, the Obama administration released previously classified memos
detailing interrogation techniques used against enemy prisoners. In the memos,
Bush administration lawyers assured the CIA that waterboarding detainees and
keeping them awake for a week or more was perfectly legal. Bush partisans insist
that such methods aren't torture, and that Obama has done grave harm to national
security by revealing them. They're wrong on both counts.
Conservative legal analyst David Rivkin, one of Bush's most reliable
defenders, insists that "any fair-minded observer" would conclude that the
documents prove that "the Bush administration did not torture." But it's hard to
understand how anyone could call what the administration did by any other name.
Rivkin's assertion is on a par with left-wing diehards' claim that President
Clinton didn't commit perjury.
Let's start with waterboarding. If it's not torture, then maybe we owe an
apology to the Japanese soldiers we prosecuted for it after WWII. It felt "like
I was drowning," Lieutenant Chase Nielsen testified in a 1946 war crimes trial,
"just gasping between life and death." It's clear that the
policy was, at the very least, criminally stupid.
True, the CIA administered the "water cure" only to three prisoners (183
times in a month to one of them). And none of the other techniques—"stress
positions," "sleep deprivation," "cramped confinement," etc.—repulse us like the
rack and the thumbscrew do.
That's why Bush administration defenders prefer to describe each technique in
isolation, glossing over the fact that it was the relentless combination of such
tactics for extended periods that made them rise to the level of torture.
US law defines torture as the infliction of "severe physical or mental pain
or suffering." Susan Crawford, the lawyer appointed by President Bush to oversee
Guantanamo Bay trials, refused to refer one detainee's case for prosecution,
because the combination of these techniques "met the legal definition of
But don't take her word for it. Read the descriptions military personnel
provided of prisoners' reactions to "enhanced interrogation": "Detainee began to
cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning.... Yelled for
Allah. Urinated on himself.... Trembled uncontrollably." Does that meet the
statutory definition? Gosh yes, that's a tough legal question.
The point here isn't to make you shed a tear for Al Qaeda prisoners; mass
murderers (actual or aspiring) are pretty hard to feel sorry for. But anyone who
understands the issue ought to feel some remorse over the damage our policy did
to the rule of law and American interests abroad.
Obama has announced that he won't prosecute CIA line officers, and it's
unlikely that anyone else will face criminal sanctions for their role in the
program. Even so, it's clear that the policy was, at the very least, criminally
Imagine if, shortly after 9/11, someone had told you that the US government
would adopt an interrogation policy based on Chinese Communist techniques
designed to elicit false confessions. You'd have thought that person was pretty
cynical. But he'd turn out to be exactly right.
To craft its torture program, the Bush team consulted experts from the
military's SERE program (for "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape"). SERE
was adopted in the wake of the Korean War to train American soldiers to resist
abuse by rogue regimes. After 9/11, we put those techniques to work to
interrogate terrorist suspects.
It's hardly surprising, then, that, as one former high-ranking intelligence
official told the Washington Post: "We spent millions of dollars chasing false
alarms." Beaten savagely by Egyptian torturers, one victim of our "extraordinary
rendition" program concocted a story about Saddam Hussein giving Al Qaeda WMD
training. That story made it into Colin Powell's UN Security Council speech
selling the Iraq War.
In his ill-fated presidential campaign, Republican congressman Tom Tancredo
got his biggest applause line when he cheered for torture in a May 2007 debate:
"I'm lookin' for Jack Bauer!" The real thing is a lot less glamorous—and a lot
less effective—than what you see on TV. Around the same time Tancredo was
mugging for the cameras, General David Petraeus issued an open letter to his
troops warning against the use of torture: "Adherence to our values
distinguishes us from our enemy." That's a principle we should keep in mind
Read the Opposing Views debate, Is Torture Ever Justified?
Read an Opposing View from FrontPage Magazine, You Call That Torture?