Friday, April 17, 2009

The Bush Torture Memos

This is not pretty. The US has published four secret memos detailing legal justification for the Bush-era CIA interrogation programme.
Three of the documents were written in May 2005 by the then acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Stephen Bradbury. They gave legal support for the combined use of various coercive techniques, and concluded that the CIA's methods were not "cruel, inhuman or degrading" under international law.

The fourth document, dating from 1 August 2002, was written by OLC lawyer John Yoo and signed by his colleague Jay Bybee.

It contained legal authorisation for a list of specific harsh interrogation techniques, including pushing detainees against a wall, facial slaps, cramped confinement, stress positions and sleep deprivation.

The memo also authorises the use of "waterboarding", or simulated drowning, and the placing of a detainee into a confined space with an insect.

Announcing the publication of the memos, Mr Obama said: "I believe that exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release.

"Withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time," he explained.

But he also gave an assurance that "those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice... will not be subject to prosecution."


Critics of the Bush administration's interrogation programme say the memos provide evidence that many of the methods amount to torture under US and international law.

It does appear that they were breaking the law, and knowingly. I confess that I was caught up in the emotions of 9-11, like many people. Apologists sold the ticking clock theory: If a prisoner had information about an imminent attack, shouldn't we use every means possible to obtain that information and put a stop to it before it's too late? This is a powerful argument, and I certainly bought it. BUT, how many situations are actually like this? Reading some of these examples are people who didn't have knowledge of attacks and were sordidly tortured over several months.

Illegal is illegal. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke we were told it was a bunch of rogue soldiers, who were acting on their own volition. (Which I believed at the time.) Obviously, that wasn't the case. Orders came down from the Oval Office. They were breaking the law and covering up. Whatever their justification, the administration was in the wrong.

Ultimately, if you're preaching freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law to the Muslim world, you lose your credibility when you act in this manner.

UPDATE: It seems a lot of people on the right are trivializing waterboarding, as merely being splashed by water. Christopher Hitchens subjected himself to it and wrote about it: Believe Me, It's Torture

UPDATE II: I think Paul Wells has the pithiest account in Maclean's
He points out that the State Department routinely decries as torture the very practices he and his colleagues are busy justifying, but only when other countries do it. And then he says it’s only torture if other countries do it.
The memos are a huge smoking gun that they knew they were doing wrong. I wonder if there will be legal action?

UPDATE III: The US World War II tribunals convicted Japanese camp officials and guards for waterboarding prisoners. From the Washington Post:
Here's the testimony of two Americans imprisoned by the Japanese:

They would lash me to a stretcher then prop me up against a table with my head down. They would then pour about two gallons of water from a pitcher into my nose and mouth until I lost consciousness.

And from the second prisoner: They laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. . . . They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was almost impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water.

As a result of such accounts, a number of Japanese prison-camp officers and guards were convicted of torture that clearly violated the laws of war.


  1. Very interesting. Especially the Hitchen's article. I was always curious how water boarding would be considered torture. It sounds so mild in comparison to pulling finger nails.

  2. I'm looking it up but I heard they had some Japanese war criminals hung for waterboarding US prisoners in WWII.

  3. Good catch. I thought it was a relative new way of torturing someone. UN friendly sort of speak. I suppose not.

  4. The French used it a lot in Algeria, back in the 50s and 60s.
    I would like to see guys like Yoo, go up against torture charges. Those prison guards in Iraq, went to jail. They said they were just following orders. Well the people giving out the orders should go to jail.
    Even the Germans followed the Geneva Convention (on the Western Front). The US has even fallen below this level.

  5. Yes, I agree. Those privates went to jail for Abu Ghraib, so it follows that the higher ups who ordered it, should too.

    Back in the days when I was defending Iraq, I argued that Abu Ghraib was done by psychotic, rogue guards. It turns out the nudity, the hoods, the electric circiuts on the fingers were all authorized techniques they were ordered to use. Count me as totally shocked on that one. That's a whopper.

  6. No, I did not buy the rogue guard story at all. That`s why the guards took pictures of the bad scenes. They felt no shame taking pictures, because they were doing what they were told to do.
    Someone breaking the rules would never have been in a picture.
    The military court would not allow any evidence, of higher officials being involved with the prison activities.