IF DICK Cheney’s views carry the day, releasing the Senate intelligence committee’s horrifying account of CIA torture after Sept. 11, 2001, will hardly have been worth it.
NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed the former vice president Sunday on what he would consider torture, if not extreme sleep deprivation, shackling people with their arms over their heads for 22 hours at a time, sealing detainees in coffin-size boxes and, yes, waterboarding.
“Waterboarding, the way we did it, was, in fact, not torture,” Mr. Cheney said.
Here is how the CIA did it, according to the Senate report: “Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding sessions ‘resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms’ and ‘hysterical pleas.’ A medical officer who oversaw the interrogation of [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] stated that the waterboard technique had evolved beyond the ‘sensation of drowning’ to what he described as a ‘series of near drownings.’ . . . During at least one waterboard session, Abu Zubaydah ‘became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full month.’ He remained unresponsive after the waterboard was rotated upwards. Upon medical intervention, he regained consciousness and expelled ‘copious amounts of liquid.’ ”
“Now, you can look for various definitions” of torture, Mr. Cheney said Sunday.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted.” If much of what the Senate report detailed is not torture, those words have little meaning.
The CIA admits that those officers and contractors who went even further than what the Bush administration sanctioned, using techniques that CIA Director John Brennan described as “abhorrent,” weren’t duly punished a decade ago. They should be now. But the most productive thing that can come from this dark episode is a stronger, clearer national understanding of what torture is — and that its practice is off-limits.
Subsequent to the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which ended in 2003, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, which bans “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in U.S. custody, regardless of physical location. President Bush attached a signing statement to the law that seemed to claim the White House can ignore these restrictions when national security demands it. Congress could revisit whether it needs to create stronger limits.
Yet the application of basic humanity and restraint should not depend exclusively on who’s in the White House, or even on the letter of the law, which has more protections now but which creative lawyers could still try to manipulate. It must be a moral and political expectation, built into the country’s mores.
“I’d do it again in a minute,” Mr. Cheney said. He, and people who agree with him, should never again have the chance.