Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Justifying torture (again)

Last Friday Bush signed and published an executive order that most news accounts reported as ending official justification for torture. While the order clearly forbids "torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment, however it still doesn't offer the kind of clearcut definition real opponents of torture would like to see. As Iraq veteran and attorney Phillip Carter argues, it "does nothing to repudiate earlier interpretations of the Bush administration, which narrowed 'torture's' scope to allow coercive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, water boarding,and extraordinary rendition, among others. Instead of proscribing torture, it adds yet another layer to the legal regime supporting those earlier policies."

What gets Carter's hackles up is that the order cites two of the most objectionable documents produced by the administration, the January 2002 memo by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint," and the February 2002 directive saying Geneva didn't apply at Gitmo.

It's been a couple of years, but when I read the Gonzales memo and a later memo, they struck me as the kind of thing a Mafia lawyer would write to let his boss know how to get away with murder and other crimes by offering fanciful but not utterly ridiculous legal arguments that it wasn't really murder. How do you do the nefarious things you want to do but stop just short of outright breaking the law? That's what those memos offered.

Given the fact that all the experienced interrogators I've talked to and recent articles by military interrogators say that torture is not a reliable way to get reliable information, it's difficult not to conclude that those in and out of the administration who are so eager to justify torture are motivated more by something resembling sadism -- if only vicarious sadism-- than by a desire to get reliable information. That's sad, but I think it's true.

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