By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The case of the 'torture memos'
Placeholder Image
The debate over the just-released Justice Department memorandums on interrogation techniques ended as soon as they were dubbed the “torture memos.” Forevermore, they will be remembered as the legal lowlights of a “dark and painful chapter in our history,” as President Barack Obama put it.
Rightly considered, the memos should be a source of pride. They represent a nation of laws struggling to defend itself against a savage, lawless enemy while adhering to its legal commitments and norms. Most societies throughout human history wouldn’t have bothered.
The memos cite conduct that is indisputably torture from a court case involving Serbs abusing Muslims in Bosnia: “severe beatings to the genitals, head and other parts of the body with metal pipes and various other items; removal of teeth with pliers; kicking in the face and ribs; breaking of bones and ribs and dislocation of fingers; cutting a figure into the victim’s forehead; hanging the victim and beating him; extreme limitations of food and water; and subjection to games of ‘Russian roulette.’”
In contrast, we carefully parsed each of our techniques to ensure it wouldn’t cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” This legalistic exercise at times took on a comic aspect. We could put a caterpillar in a box with a detainee afraid of stinging insects, Abu Zubaydah, so long as we didn’t falsely tell him the caterpillar was a threat to sting. We could put detainees in diapers so long as “the diaper is checked regularly and changed as needed to prevent skin irritation.”
Several of the harshest methods — sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding — could easily constitute torture, depending on their application. The tone of the press coverage makes the very act of subjecting these methods to close legal analysis seem dirty, as if the Justice Department should have come down with a case of the vapors when asked for guidance.
But there is a line somewhere between the highly restricted methods approved in the Army Field Manual for interrogation of enemy soldiers and illegal torture. The only way to find and honor that line is by lots of lawyerly analysis of practices that — in the words of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair — “read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing.”
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Bush administration succeeded in its balancing act. Waterboarding has always been the most controversial method, and it was used 183 times — in short bursts not exceeding 40 seconds — against top al-Qaida captive Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in March 2003. Were intelligence benefits gained commensurate with the frequent resort to this method?
If we had a more mature political culture, this and other questions could be thoroughly examined by a special congressional committee. (As it happens, the CIA produced a memo on the benefits of the interrogation program that has never been released.) But such an inquiry would inevitably descend into a hyperpoliticized takedown of the CIA and the Bush Justice Department for “war crimes.” The frenzied reception of the “torture memos” is just a preview.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
Sign up for our e-newsletters