Last week’s revelations from the declassification of the Interrogation Memos — though we should call them what they are, which are Torture Memos — have triggered a justifiable uproar. But what’s hypocritical about many of the reactions this week — from media commentators as well as politicians across the spectrum — is that none of this should have been a surprise. One reason it shouldn’t have been is because of a book Jane Mayer wrote last year called The Dark Side, based on her meticulous reporting for The New Yorker. Anyone in Washington who pretends to be surprised that harsh interrogation techniques were authorized at the highest levels of our government has willfully not been paying attention.
That the Justice Department authorized making these documents public is a testament to open government. There are valid concerns from those, especially within the C.I.A., who opposed declassification. But none of those concerns trumped the fact that releasing these memos meant we could finally stop lying to ourselves that we don’t torture. We have tortured. Mayer documents it in brutal detail: Abu Zubaydah, the first major Qaeda figure captured by our military, was waterboarded as often as ten times a week, and up to three times a day. Prisoners were subjected to extreme heat and cold, irregular and insufficient periods of sleep, confined spaces, no bathroom breaks and constant threats and humiliation. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker several weeks ago, there is a strong case to be made that solitary confinement itself is torture.
President Obama has done far more right than wrong in his handling of this issue. On day two of his presidency he revoked all legal opinions on interrogation and ordered that the C.I.A.’s secret prisons be closed. And had he not been behind the push to release these memos, they certainly would not have been released. But Obama also weighed in on a decision that was not his to make: whether or not to pursue criminal investigations against the people who authorized these techniques as well as the people who carried them out. That authority lies with the Attorney General and the Justice Department itself, which in principle should function independently of any political persuasion.
Being against torture shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It should be an American issue. It’s sad to think it must even be a debate. Arguments in defense of the enhanced interrogation have claimed that it did indeed produce intelligence that saved lives. This may in fact be true. The people making this claim have demanded that Obama deauthorize other memos that they say will vindicate their argument. But what is also true, and what Mayer (very persuasively) shows, is that not torturing produced intelligence that saved lives.* It is also true, according to Mayer, that torture produced evidence that was simply wrong — as Sheikh Ibn al-Libi confessed, saying he gave a fabricated confession simply to stop being tortured — and that this evidence was used to drum up congressional authorization of the Iraq War.
Mayer quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. a “liberal Democrat but also an admirer of muscular foreign policy,” as saying of our country’s authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques, “No position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world — ever.”
Repentance means “to turn around”; in the Christian practice, repentance involves an admission of guilt followed by a dedication to atone for one’s wrongs. Our country has stumbled to an admission of guilt with regard to torture, but what we apparently lack the political will to do is turn around, to amend and change ourselves. Can atonement happen without holding anyone accountable? As any recovered alcoholic can tell you, step four is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” In this, we are still searching for our fearlessness.
The Dark Side comes out in paperback (with a new afterword) on May 5.
* Ali Soufan, who turns up in The Dark Side and as a hero in Lawrence Wright’s excellent The Looming Tower, makes the same point in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Times. Soufan argues from firsthand experience that traditional interrogation techniques — i.e., not torture — were working with Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. A former F.B.I. agent who talked directly with Zubaydah, Soufan praises the release of the memos but says that prosecuting C.I.A. officials for following orders would be a mistake.
UPDATE: Soufan is profiled in this week’s Newsweek.