Thursday, October 4, 2007; 1:42 PM
How the United States became associated with torture is not just a matter of historical interest. And that's all the more clear today, with the publication of a major New York Times story describing the Bush administration's ongoing circumvention of national and international prohibitions against barbaric interrogation practices.
In other words: It continues.
Finding out what our government has been doing in our name, and openly debating our interrogation policies, should have been high on the national agenda since the disclosure of the shockingly inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Few other issues speak so clearly to how we see ourselves as a people -- and how others see us.
But the White House's non-denial denials, disingenuous euphemisms and oppressive secrecy have repeatedly stifled any genuine discourse. Bush shuts down discussion by declaring that "we don't torture" -- yet he won't even say how he defines the term.
Facts are the most crucial and largely missing element in this debate. Today, we have a few more.
Scott Shane, David Johnston and James Risen write in the New York Times: "When the Justice Department publicly declared torture 'abhorrent' in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.
"But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales's arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.
"The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
"Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on 'combined effects' over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion's overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be 'ashamed' when the world eventually learned of it.
"Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing 'cruel, inhuman and degrading' treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard. . . .
"Congress and the Supreme Court have intervened repeatedly in the last two years to impose limits on interrogations, and the administration has responded as a policy matter by dropping the most extreme techniques. But the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics."
There's not a whole lot of doubt about where these polices originated: "Associates at the Justice Department said Mr. Gonzales seldom resisted pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and David S. Addington, Mr. Cheney's counsel, to endorse policies that they saw as effective in safeguarding Americans, even though the practices brought the condemnation of other governments, human rights groups and Democrats in Congress. Critics say Mr. Gonzales turned his agency into an arm of the Bush White House, undermining the department's independence."