The word torture has tripped awkwardly off tongues throughout Washington ever since the Obama administration's release of legal memos justifying the CIA's use of brutal interrogation measures. It isn't news, of course, that the CIA was playing tough with terrorist suspects. But the lengthy memos included vivid details that belied earlier Bush administration claims that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were applied sparingly.
There was, for instance, the revelation that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was waterboarded more than 180 times in 30 days. In the heated debate that quickly followed, even a top Republican like House Minority Leader John Boehner, who supports the tactics, referred to them as "torture techniques" at a news conference last Thursday.
The Obama White House was in for a surprise if it hoped to put the issue to rest by yielding to long-standing demands to release the memos. Indeed, a separate congressional inquiry released last week put the program in a larger and perhaps more troubling context by revealing that the government's use of abusive interrogations increased as the Bush administration attempted to establish links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the months before the Iraq war. The inquiry also drew explicit links between CIA interrogation techniques and abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Now, a debate is raging over whether to punish anyone for the interrogation practices and, if so, whom. The most obvious targets would be those who conducted the interrogations, but few are willing to go after rank-and-file CIA officers as they continue the fight against al Qaeda. (Indeed, Obama went to CIA headquarters this week to praise the agency's work and reassure staffers.) The Justice Department, for its part, is already investigating the lawyers who wrote the memos. And Democrats are calling for the impeachment of one of the memo's authors, Jay Bybee, now a federal judge.
The memos, heavy in both legalese and graphic detail, contend that it was legal to subject suspects to forced nudity, slamming against flexible walls, extremes of heat and cold, and the faux suffocation technique, waterboarding. They also reflect the tense post-9/11 atmosphere, in which additional attacks were expected.
Beyond the question of intent is the question of effectiveness. In a legal sense, it does not matter whether the techniques elicited useful information or not. Through a political lens, those issues are paramount. For that reason, former Vice President Dick Cheney—whose penchant for secrecy led him to blur his residence in Google Earth—was suddenly calling to declassify additional memos that he said would prove the interrogations prevented attacks.
While some insiders dispute Cheney's analysis, Democrats in Congress have renewed stalled calls for a truth commission to sort out the whole affair. After initially resisting such proposals, Obama signaled he would leave it up to Congress. International law, meanwhile, may push things further. The top torture investigator for the United Nations contends that, under international law, the United States is bound to investigate and punish anyone connected to instances of torture, whether the president wants to or not.