Last week, President Obama released parts of four memos (dating from 2002 and 2005) in which Justice Department lawyers discussed the interrogation techniques permissible under the Bush administration.

The documents spell out options available to CIA agents, including dousing detainees in icy water; placing in them stress positions to cause muscle fatigue (“in wall standing, it will be holding a position in which all of the individual’s body weight is placed on his finger tips”); slapping them on the abdomen or face to “induce shock, surprise, and/or humiliation”; stripping them naked; confining them in cramped spaces; depriving them of sleep for up to 180 hours (during which time they remain standing, handcuffed and in adult diapers — possibly without clothes); pushing them into walls (known as “walling”); and waterboarding.

The memos also note a particular prisoner’s fear of rats and discuss how this could be used to torture him. Oops. My bad. That was in 1984. The Room 101 of the Bush administration involves placing a phobic man in cramped confinement and then putting insects on top of him.

Astonishingly, there are still those who can read the constipated prose of these evil documents and conclude that, because the techniques weren’t intended to prove fatal, no actual torture took place. Why, whatever the detainee thinks, it’s a harmless insect in the confinement box. No worse than frat boy hijinks, surely?

Well, with waterboarding, the memos spell out that “the subject’s body responds as if the subject were drowning” and that “the use of waterboarding constitutes a threat of imminent death”. We now know that the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed an astonishing 183 times in a single month. They gave Abu Zubaydah, who was suffering from three bullet wounds, the same treatment “at least 83 times in a month”. Zubaydah, who, according to journalist Ron Suskind, was mentally ill and a complete fantasist, “began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty.”

Such techniques are designed to be unbearable — that’s the whole point. Indeed, one official explained to the NYT that the interrogations actually impacted on the interrogators themselves since “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect”.

Not surprisingly, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the government’s own data shows that at least 108 people have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently.

Human rights activists have long argued that these “enhanced interrogations” resemble the methods used by some of history’s most unsavoury regimes. Remarkably, in the new memos, the Bush lawyers entirely concede the point:

Each year, in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States condemns coercive interrogation techniques and other practices employed by other countries. Certain of the techniques the United States had condemned appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques. In their discussion of Indonesia, for example, the reports list as “[p]sychological torture” conduct that involves “food and sleep deprivation” […] In their discussion of Egypt, the reports list as “methods of torture” “stripping and blindfolding victims; suspecting victims from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beating victims [with various objects] … and dousing victims with cold water.” See also eg Algeria (describing the “chiffon” method, which involves “placing a rag drenched in dirty water in someone’s mouth”; Iran (counting sleep deprivation as either torture or sever prisoner abuse); Syria (discussing sleep deprivation and “having cold water thrown on” detainees as either torture or “ill treatment”).

How do they resolve this little conundrum? They don’t. They just brazen it out. The memo continues: “We recognize that as a matter of diplomacy, the United States may for various reasons in various circumstances call another nation to account for practices that may in some respects resemble conduct in which the United States might in some circumstances engage, covertly or otherwise.”

When the Inquisition and Pol Pot use waterboarding, it’s bad; when we do it, not so much.

So what happens now? Will there be any consequences for President Bush’s torturers?

The prospects don’t look great. The White House has already offered legal protection to CIA interrogators who can show they “acted reasonably and relied in good faith on authoritative legal advice from the Justice Department that their conduct was lawful”.

Very magnanimous — but a flagrant contradiction of the fundamental principle from the Nuremberg trials where the prosecution of Nazi war criminals established that “the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

President Obama’s explicitly said that he didn’t want to point fingers since “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” That’s an argument that wouldn’t get you out of traffic fine (“Sure, officer — I might have been going too fast, but let’s not point fingers or dwell on the past”). Does it really fly for torture — the worst crime there is?

But who knows? Perhaps there will be sufficient public pressure to force some prosecutions. Certainly, it’s very hard to read these vile documents without outrage.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW