Friday, April 17, 2009

The Insult Slap

Just last Friday I wrote about the C.I.A. closing its "secret prisons" and speculated about whether or not agents who were involved in the harsh interrogation tactics (or torture, depending on your perspective) would be prosecuted. Yesterday the president answered that question (no prosecution) even as his administration released more of the infamous "torture memos" from the Bush years.

In dozens of pages of dispassionate legal prose, the methods approved by the Bush administration for extracting information from senior operatives of Al Qaeda are spelled out in careful detail — like keeping detainees awake for up to 11 straight days, placing them in a dark, cramped box or putting insects into the box to exploit their fears.

The interrogation methods were authorized beginning in 2002, and some were used as late as 2005 in the C.I.A.’s secret overseas prisons. The techniques were among the Bush administration’s most closely guarded secrets, and the documents released Thursday afternoon were the most comprehensive public accounting to date of the program.

Some senior Obama administration officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., have labeled one of the 14 approved techniques, waterboarding, illegal torture. The United States prosecuted some Japanese interrogators at war crimes trials after World War II for waterboarding and other methods detailed in the memos.
You should read the memos yourself. The dispassionate, incredibly detailed, borderline sociopathic quality of the writing is astonishing.
"The facial hold is used to hold the head immobile. One open palm is placed on either side of the individual's face. The fingertips are kept well away from the individual's eyes. With the facial slap or insult slap, the interrogator slaps the individual's face with fingers slightly spread. The hand makes contact with the area directly between the tip of the individual's chin and the bottom of the corresponding earlobe. The interrogator invades the individual's personal space. The purpose of the facial slap is to induce shock, surprise and/or humiliation."
And it gets worse from there, describing "prescribed" details for placing individuals in "dark, cramped boxes," sleep deprivation techniques, and of course waterboarding. Beyond that, the convoluted legal justifications (not to mention grammatical errors) are even more disturbing, as though written by law school dropouts with little understanding of the law.

I've been teaching punishment and the war on terror since 9/11 and I have to admit that my blood ran cold reading some of this stuff. Stephen King couldn't have written better horror vignettes than those outlined in these memoranda.

All of which makes it difficult to understand the "we need to look forward, not backward" stance of the president. Not only does Obama "thank the agents" for their service to the country (which is fine, everyone should, but startlingly inappropriate given the subject matter), but he makes the following legal rationale, from the statement:
"In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution."
While I agree with middle of the road tone he's trying to strike, it's troubling nonetheless that we are now justifying the behavior spelled out in those memos with a "just following orders" ruse. Given this tidbit from the Justice Department earlier in the week, it seems even more dubious.

However, it does appear Obama has left the door open to prosecute the authors of these memos. While his statement is quite detailed in explaining the rationale for not prosecuting the agents who carried out these actions, he appears to have left himself quite a bit of latitude in pursuing the lawyers who authored the memoranda in the first place.

UPDATE: For a contrarian opinion, check out this WSJ op-ed by former Bush AG Michael Mukasey and former CIA chief Michael Hayden. It's an interesting article up until they bring up the old canard "there were those who believed that the U.S. deserved what it got on Sept. 11, 2001," and then falsely link 9/11 to Saddam Hussein, the invasion of Iraq, and future attacks against the U.S.

But if the memos above were crafted under the agencies I later headed (and did nothing about), I'd continue crying wolf in print as well.

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