Almost as disturbing as reading the Bush administration’s approved menu of brutal interrogation techniques is recognizing how President George W. Bush successfully shopped for government attorneys willing to render American laws meaningless by turning words inside out.
The four “torture” memos, released Thursday, revealed not just that the stomach-turning reports about CIA interrogators abusing “war on terror” suspects were true, but that the United States had gone from a “nation of laws” to a “nation of legal sophistry” – where conclusions on law are politically preordained and the legal analysis is made to fit.
You have passages like this in the May 10, 2005, memo by Steven Bradbury, then acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel:
“Another question is whether the requirement of ‘prolonged mental harm’ caused by or resulting from one of the enumerated predicate acts is a separate requirement, or whether such ‘prolonged mental harm’ is to be presumed any time one of the predicate acts occurs.”
As each phrase in the Convention Against Torture was held up to such narrow examination, the forest of criminal torture was lost in the trees of arcane legal jargon. Collectively, the memos leave a disorienting sense that any ambiguity in words can be twisted to justify almost anything.
So, a “war on terror” prisoner could not only be locked up in solitary confinement indefinitely based on the sole authority of President Bush but could be subjected to a battery of abusive and humiliating tactics, all in the name of extracting some information that purportedly would help keep the United States safe – and it would not be called “torture.”
Some tactics were bizarre, like feeding detainees a liquid diet of Ensure to make “other techniques, such as sleep deprivation, more effective.” The memo’s sleep deprivation clause, in turn, allowed interrogators to shackle prisoners to an overhead pipe (or in some other uncomfortable position) for up to 180 hours (or seven-and-a-half days).
While shackled, the prisoner would be dressed in a diaper that “is checked regularly and changed as necessary.” The memo asserted that “the use of the diaper is for sanitary and health purposes of the detainee; it is not used for the purpose of humiliating the detainee, and it is not considered to be an interrogation technique.”
Beyond the painful disorientation from depriving a person of sleep while chained in a standing position for days, the Justice Department memos called for prisoners to be forced into other “stress positions” for varying periods of time to cause “the physical discomfort associated with muscle fatigue.”
The detainees also could be put into small, dark boxes where they could barely move (and in the case of one detainee, Abu Zubaydah, could have an insect slipped into his box as a way of playing on his fear of bugs), according to the Aug. 1, 2002, memo.
“The duration of confinement varies based upon the size of the container,” the May 10, 2005, memo added, with the smaller space (sitting only) restricted to two hours at a time and a somewhat larger box (permitting standing) limited to eight hours at a time and 18 hours a day.
Then, there were various slaps, grabs and slamming a prisoner against a “flexible” wall while his neck was in a sling “to help prevent whiplash.”
Prisoners also were subjected to forced nudity, sometimes in the presence of women, according to the May 10 memo.
“We understand that interrogators are trained to avoid sexual innuendo or any acts of implicit or explicit sexual degradation,” the memo said. “Nevertheless, interrogators can exploit the detainee’s fear of being seen naked.
“In addition, female officers involved in the interrogation process may see the detainees naked; and for purposes of our analysis, we will assume that detainees subjected to nudity as an interrogation technique are aware that they may be seen naked by females.”
Another approved technique was “water dousing” in which a detainee is sprayed with water that can be as cold as 41 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 20 minutes. Slightly warmer water could be used to douse a prisoner for longer periods of time.
Both the 2002 and 2005 memos permitted the “waterboard,” a technique that involves covering a prisoner’s face with a cloth and pouring water on it to create the panicked sensation of drowning. The interrogators also were authorized to prevent a detainee from trying to “defeat the technique” by thrashing about or trying to breathe from the corner of his mouth.
“The interrogator may cup his hands around the detainee’s nose and mouth to dam the runoff, in which case it would not be possible for the detainee to breathe during the application of the water,” the May 10 memo reads. “In addition, you have informed us that the technique may be applied in a manner to defeat efforts by the detainee to hold his breath by, for example, beginning an application of water as the detainee is exhaling.”
At least since the days of the Spanish Inquisition, waterboarding has been regarded as torture. The U.S. government prosecuted Japanese soldiers who used it against American troops in World War II. But the legal reasoning of the Bush administration's memos transformed waterboarding into an acceptable method of interrogation.
Although the four released memos included the most famous one – from Aug. 1, 2002, which provided the initial legal cover for abusive interrogations – the three others from May 2005 may be more significant in destroying the legal cover that President Bush and his senior aides have hidden behind.
Their claim has been that they were simply operating within legal parameters set by lawyers at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is responsible for advising Presidents on the limits of their authority. In other words, professional lawyers provided objective legal advice and the administration simply followed it.
But that claim now collides with the reality that other Justice Department lawyers – from 2003 to 2005 – overturned the initial memo and resisted its reimplementation until they were ousted. In effect, the Bush administration appears to have gone lawyer-shopping for attorneys who would craft opinions that the White House wanted.
Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee signed the original Aug. 1, 2002, “torture” memo and other opinions granting expansive presidential powers (drafted by his deputy John Yoo).
However, Bybee quit in 2003 to accept President Bush’s appointment of him as a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, and his successor as head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, withdrew many Bybee-Yoo memos as legally flawed.
Goldsmith’s actions angered the White House, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington. In a 2007 book, The Terror Presidency, Goldsmith described one White House meeting at which Addington pulled out a 3-by-5-inch card listing the OLC opinions that Goldsmith had withdrawn.
“Since you’ve withdrawn so many legal opinions that the President and others have been relying on,” Addington said sarcastically, “we need you to go through all of OLC’s opinions and let us know which ones you will stand by.”
Though supported by Deputy Attorney General James Comey, Goldsmith succumbed to the White House pressure and quit in 2004. Still, despite Goldsmith’s departure, Comey and the new acting head of the OLC, Daniel Levin, resisted restoring the administration’s right to use the harsh interrogation techniques.
That didn’t occur until White House counsel Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General in 2005 and made Bradbury the acting chief of the OLC. After signing the three “torture” memos in May, Bradbury was rewarded with Bush’s formal nomination in June to be Assistant Attorney General for the OLC (although he never gained Senate confirmation).
With the OLC reaffirming the administration’s interrogation techniques, Comey’s days were numbered.
Though having been a successful prosecutor on past terrorism cases, such as the Khobar Towers bombing which killed 19 U.S. servicemen in 1996, Comey had earned the derisive nickname from Bush as “Cuomey” or just “Cuomo,” a strong insult from Republicans who deemed former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to be excessively liberal and famously indecisive.
On Aug. 15, 2005, in his farewell speech, Comey urged his colleagues to defend the integrity and honesty of the Justice Department.
“I expect that you will appreciate and protect an amazing gift you have received as an employee of the Department of Justice,” Comey said. “It is a gift you may not notice until the first time you stand up and identify yourself as an employee of the Department of Justice and say something – whether in a courtroom, a conference room or a cocktail party – and find that total strangers believe what you say next.
“That gift – the gift that makes possible so much of the good we accomplish – is a reservoir of trust and credibility, a reservoir built for us, and filled for us, by those who went before – most of whom we never knew. They were people who made sacrifices and kept promises to build that reservoir of trust.
“Our obligation – as the recipients of that great gift – is to protect that reservoir, to pass it to those who follow, those who may never know us, as full as we got it. The problem with reservoirs is that it takes tremendous time and effort to fill them, but one hole in a dam can drain them.
“The protection of that reservoir requires vigilance, an unerring commitment to truth, and a recognition that the actions of one may affect the priceless gift that benefits all. I have tried my absolute best – in matters big and small – to protect that reservoir and inspire others to protect it.”
Though the full import of Comey’s comments was not apparent at the time, it now appears that he was referring to the legal gamesmanship that Bradbury and others had used to circumvent American laws and traditions to enable the Bush administration to engage in torture.
In releasing the four memos on Thursday, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder repeated their rejection of the Bybee-Yoo-Bradbury legal theories, but also stipulated that they would oppose any legal action against the CIA interrogators who abused detainees under the Bush administration’s legal guidance.
Neither Obama nor Holder spoke specifically about possible legal accountability for Bush’s compliant lawyers -- or for Bush and his top aides who oversaw the torture policies and picked the lawyers. However, Obama recommended a focus on the future, not the past.
Calling the period covered by the four memos a “dark and painful chapter in our history,” Obama added that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
The lack of accountability for Bush and his lawyers, however, may mean that future Presidents will follow Bush's lead and assign some clever legal wordsmiths the job of finding ways around criminal statutes, international treaties and the U.S. Constitution.
If legal language can be interpreted any way that a President wishes – and if the U.S. Supreme Court is stocked with like-minded judges – then laws will no longer protect anyone, whether a suspected Middle Eastern terrorist or an American citizen.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on April 17, 2009.