I am a notorious skimmer, but I decided to read the torture memos in full. I started with the Bybee memo, issued on August 1, 2002. In it, Office of Legal Cousel attorney Jay Bybee responds to a CIA request to torture Abu Zubaydah. The CIA’s argument is that the threat level to the US at the time of the request is higher than it was before 9/11, and that Abu Zubaydah is unlikely to disclose any additional information absent torture.
The request is for permission to use ten techniques, which are listed as follows:
(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.
The techniques are described in explicit detail, with careful guidelines for how they are meant to be applied. We needn’t guess whether the interrogators stayed within these bounds. The recently released Red Cross report on torture holds the answers.
At that point, there are several pages of arguments that the interrogation techniques that were to be applied have not driven more than a few people subjected to them as part of SERE training crazy. This evidence is later used to argue that the interrogators are operating in good faith in trying to avoid violating anti-torture legal statutes.
Next there’s a psychological profile of Abu Zubaydah. In short, he is described as exactly the kind of person who needs to be tortured.
Bybee then goes on to explain his legal rationale for arguing that applying the techniques listed does not constitute torture. He lists five criteria that an act must meet to violate a particular statute against torture. The first three criteria are inarguably met. That leaves the last two — that the interrogator intended to inflict severe pain or suffering and that they did, in fact, inflict severe pain or suffering.
Bybee decides to consider physical pain and mental pain separately and argues that examples of torture that inflict “severe pain” are, and I quote, “severe beatings with weapons such as clubs” and “the burning of prisoners.” Since in his opinion none of the acts meet those standards of pain, he argues they are not torture. After going over each proposed technique one by one in terms of the amount of pain caused, he argues that pain and suffering are the same thing, and thus chooses to ignore the fact that most of the techniques on the list are designed to inflict suffering. (One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers demolishes this argument.)
Next he turns to mental pain. The statute lists four criteria for acts that can cause prolonged mental harm. He focuses on whether or not any of the techniques alone or in combination can, from a reasonable torture victim’s point of view, be thought to constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering, or death.
Again, Bybee goes over each of the techniques and explains why they do not constitute a threat of severe pain or death. He’s careful to let them know that they can’t threaten him while they’re committing the acts, or that will violate the statute. Eventually he gets to waterboarding, which presents a problem because it is intended to produce the sensation of imminent death by drowning, and is therefore a predicate act that meets the criteria for torture. However, Bybee gives this technique a pass because it can be argued that waterboarding does not inflict “prolonged mental harm”.
Bybee then acknowledges that if you used several of the techniques in rapid succession and perhaps verbally threatened Abu Zubaydah at the same time, it would constitute a threat of severe physical harm or death. However, even that, in Bybee’s estimation, is not a violation of the statue because it wouldn’t cause prolonged mental harm (just as is the case for waterboarding alone).
At that point, he turns to the question of intent. His argument here is that as long as the interrogators don’t believe that they are going to cause severe harm or suffering, they’re in the clear. So even given the legal risks that accompany making someone believe they’re going to drown, the interrogators will not violate the statute because they don’t intend to cause severe pain or suffering. In this case, wishing really will make it so.
The memo is amazing to read, because it is, essentially, a long argument that the techniques in question do not create the very effects for which they are designed. The entire purpose of each of the techniques is to inflict pain or suffering, with the specific goal of forcing the subject to disclose information. In discussing whether stress positions cause severe pain, Bybee writes, “Any pain associated with muscle fatigue is not of the intensity sufficient to amount to ‘severe physical pain or suffering’ under the statute, nor, despite its discomfort, can it be said to be difficult to endure.” If it’s not difficult to endure, how could it possibly be an effective interrogation technique?
Likewise, in discussing placing an insect in an unlit, confining box with Abu Zubaydah, Bybee writes, “An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box.” Of course, as is made clear elsewhere, Abu Zubaydah was to be told that the insect is a stinging insect. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone placed in a dark, coffin sized box with a stinging insect would not expect severe physical pain.
I really think that people should read these memos and ask themselves if this is the kind of power we want to see the government granting to itself. These memos take on these issues in the most detached and legalistic terms. The results were a regime that was much more savage, unconstrained, and persistent than they are imagined to be by the lawyers who cooked up the legal justifications for them.