Torture handbook ignites firestorm

The recent release of Justice Department memos on torture indicate that the country is still in the grasp of the chillingly long nightmare created by George Bush, Dick Cheney and their administration.

After President Obama ok’d the release, a firestorm of protest blazed across the country.

Far-right bloviators, including Cheney, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham and Karl Rove, sought to condemn Obama for “letting the terrorists know” about the extreme techniques and therefore, supposedly, enabling them to train against the methods. (Such claims ignore the fact that awareness of U.S. waterboarding and other torture “techniques” is already widespread.)

But most Americans were disgusted with the memos’ legal justifications for torture, some of which spelled out specific techniques in painful detail.

On page 2 of the Aug. 1, 2002, secret memo, 10 interrogation techniques are outlined: “(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.”

Quoting one of the memos, The New York Times said waterboarding — mock drowning — was used on two al-Qaeda terror suspects on up to 266 occasions.

Other methods mentioned in the memos include week-long sleep deprivation, forced nudity and the use of painful positions.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) is leading an effort to establish a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties to investigate torture and other possible illegal polices pursued by the Bush administration.

On the Senate side, Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, wrote the president asking him not to rule out prosecutions until her panel completed an investigation over the next six to eight months. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is leading a separate inquiry.

MoveOn issued a statement April 21 that said, “So far there’s been no accountability for the architects of Bush’s torture program — the top officials who justified keeping detainees awake for 11 days straight, waterboarding them repeatedly, and forcing prisoners into coffin-like boxes with insects. We need real consequences for those responsible — it’s the only way to keep this from happening again.

“Attorney General Eric Holder can open an investigation into the torture program — but he most likely won’t unless people everywhere speak up and demand it.”

The group has an online petition that is getting the signatures of hundreds of thousands.

Progressive Democrats of America and the Center for Constitutional Rights are both calling for the impeachment of Jay Bybee, the author of the torture “handbook” and Bush’s assistant attorney general. Bybee is now serving as a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, a post to which he was appointed by Bush.

Bybee not only justified torture but spelled out in gruesome detail how CIA operatives in the prisons were to carry it out.

The Bush Justice Department legal expert set guidelines for the use of “confinement boxes” into which the victim is placed (together with insects, recalling George Orwell’s book “1984”), explained how to carry out “walling” and gave his seal of approval to “waterboarding.”

“Cramped confinement involves the placement of the individual in a confined space, the dimensions of which restrict the individual’s movement. The confined space is usually dark,” Bybee wrote.

“[T]hough the introduction of an insect may produce trepidation, it certainly does not cause physical pain.”

Yet the political and legal terrain for prosecution may be more like quicksand than a paved road, some say.

Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University, was head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He gave “great credit” to President Obama for releasing the memos and said they were a list of tortures.

He also commented on possible war crimes. “Many, I know, wish to prosecute for war crime, and perhaps Spain still will. I doubt, given the mental requirements for criminal penalty, such would be successful, and I admire President Obama, yet anew, for taking the political heat from his left perimeter for grasping the futility of such prosecution.”

(Kmiec was referring to Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon who wants to charge six Bush senior policy advisors with “giving legal cover” to torture at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.)

Kmiec called for a “Nuremberg-style citizen-conducted ethics inquiry” in which Pentagon and former White House officials “would be required to self-critique why the nation they most assuredly would say they love is today embarrassed if not appalled by what was authorized.”

However Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights argues that it’s not Obama’s decision to make as to whether torturers are prosecuted or not.

“Whether or not to prosecute lawbreakers is not a political decision,” Ratner said. “Laws were broken and crimes were committed.

“It is about insuring that we will not again become a nation that employs in torture. The prohibition on torture should not be dependent on who is president or on the stroke of a pen. We prosecute those who break laws to deter lawbreaking. President Obama, by granting impunity to torturers, becomes complicit with their actions. History will not judge him kindly.”

According to reports, Obama left the door open for prosecution of Bush officials who provided the legal rationale to support torture policies.

John Wojcik contributed to this story.


Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.