The Bush administration “torture memos” will be 10 years old this week. As the administration developed its interrogation policies, it concealed various forms of torture under the moniker “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It consulted with the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice on the legality of these techniques, including waterboarding, walling (slamming detainees against walls), forcing detainees into stress positions and subjecting them to sleep deprivation. Ultimately, the OLC provided legal cover for the use of most of these techniques.
On Aug. 1, 2002, in a memo addressed to the general counsel of the CIA, Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay Bybee wrote: “When the waterboard is used, the subject’s body responds as if the subject were drowning…. The subject may experience the fear or panic associated with the feeling of drowning.”
I know something about the feeling of drowning. The closest I’ve come to death was more than 20 years ago, while I was white-water rafting in West Virginia with some Air Force friends. As the raft careened through the rapids, two of us were tossed out. As the current pulled us past a large rock that jutted out into the river, it curled down and took me with it. I could see the surface five or six feet above me, but the water pushed me down harder than my legs could push me up. As I struggled to live, I thought about my wife who was pregnant with a child I might never see.
It was as if time slowed down. I experienced 10 minutes worth of thoughts in the minute I was underwater. Finally, my lungs aching, I pushed away from the rock rather than up toward the surface, and seconds later, I popped up, gasping, terrified.
As the CIA memo makes clear, that is the point of waterboarding. “Any reasonable person undergoing this procedure … would feel as if he is drowning … due to the uncontrollable physiological sensation he is experiencing...,” Bybee wrote. “It constitutes a threat of imminent death.” Nonetheless, he concludes that such treatment would not be torture because the harm would not be prolonged.
I suspect that Bybee never fell off a raft into white water, and never came close to death by drowning, because if he had, I feel certain he would have had a very different view of whether it causes prolonged harm.
Past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, had opposed torture, but the Bush administration embraced it by renaming it enhanced interrogation techniques and claiming that it was necessary for our national security. Upon taking office, President Obama issued an executive order halting the use of torture.
Torture is counterproductive. Professional interrogators — Ali Soufan of the FBI, Matthew Alexander of the Air Force and Glenn Carle of the CIA — have said this clearly.
Torture is always illegal. The United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1994, agreeing to abide by the following proscription: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Torture is also a moral abomination. As the National Religious Campaign Against Torture — made up of member institutions representing followers of the Bahai faith, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and more — attests, it runs contrary to the teachings of all religions and dishonors all faiths. It is an egregious violation of the human rights and dignity of each and every person and results in the degradation of all involved — the victim, perpetrator and policymakers.
“Any reasonable person” understands that the United States engaged in torture during the Bush administration. And yet members of that administration still defend their actions. They argue that the enhanced interrogation techniques they used or authorized were not torture. Referring to the now discredited torture memos, they claim that the Department of Justice verified that these techniques were not criminal acts.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has undertaken an investigation into the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques allowed by the memos. It is essential that its findings be released to the public so that the American people can know the truth about what was done in their name.
And we should mark the 10th anniversary of the effort by the Bush administration to justify torture, remembering that as a nation founded on religious and moral values, we must work to ensure that U.S. government-sponsored torture never occurs again.
Retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis is former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is now on the faculty of the Howard University School of Law. He will participate in a panel discussion about torture at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Hammer Museum.