Torture: Holding America to account

To read the four newly released Bush-era memos on America’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” for terror suspects is to enter a very dark moral world indeed. It is the Orwellian world of the concealed global detention network set up by the CIA on President Bush’s authority after 9/11 in which suspected terrorists – many of whom may have had a lot of blood on their hands – were secretly held in US bases from Afghanistan to Romania and systematically tortured. A world in which Britain is implicated too, do not forget.

The memos do not admit torture, of course. The United States, Mr Bush famously claimed in 2006, “does not torture”. The memos embody a cynical bureaucratic attempt to align what went on in the secret prisons with that claim. Yet no one who reads their argument that the threat of imminent drowning caused by waterboarding does not reach the level of “prolonged mental harm” which the Bush lawyers argue is necessary to constitute torture, can doubt that torture is precisely what the CIA had been permitted and encouraged to carry out. The truth, as the new US attorney general Eric Holder has said, is clear: “Waterboarding is torture.”

Jaw-dropping though they are, the memos are not the only evidence of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture. Two years ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was given access to 14 Guantánamo detainees who had been through the “alternative procedures”. Their experiences, retold in two recent essays by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books (one of which we republish inside our own Review today), tell of the relentless abuse of detainees who were kept naked in low temperatures for weeks, forced to live in permanent bright light (or total darkness), required to wear nappies, deprived of solid food, blindfolded, shackled, forcibly shaved, and compelled to wear earphones through which loud music was repeatedly played.

The “procedures” discussed in the memos – grasping, slapping, holding, banging against walls, confinement in boxes (sometimes with insects), sleep deprivation, prolonged confinement in “stress positions” and waterboarding – were additional to these. The ICRC heard accounts of most of them from the detainees. These accounts are far more graphic (and even credible) than the cold lawyerish prose of the memos. The ICRC conclusion was emphatic: “The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA programme, either singly or in combination, constituted torture.”

America should hang its head at methods that Dick Cheney still defends (and which, importantly, may not have yielded much good intelligence). Barack Obama did the right thing by ending the abuses within hours of taking office. He did well to publish the legal memos too. In such ways Mr Obama makes clear that his administration is making a clean break with the discredited past, while at the same time graphically reminding the world why that past (and Britain’s role in it) was so disgraceful.

On balance Mr Obama may also be right to assure CIA personnel that they will not face prosecution if they carried out their work in good faith based on the old legal advice. But an essential part of the rule of law is that those who break it must be answerable for their actions. The Bush administration crossed a fateful threshold after 9/11. Its officials, including its lawyers, must be accountable for that. It is understandable that Mr Obama does not want his first term to be dominated by a reliving of the past. Yet America will only ensure it does not embrace torture again by getting to the bottom of why it did so this time. A full congressional inquiry is in order, as Speaker Pelosi has hinted. One way or another, those who ordered the abuses, from the president and vice-president down, must answer for them.

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