The New York Times announced yesterday that two more legal opinions written by the Bush Administration Justice Department endorsed the legality of certain forms of torture by deciding they did not constitute actual “torture” under international laws. Both of these memos from Attorney General Gonzales came after the White House declaration renouncing torture, which itself only came after the Abu Ghraib scandals. Congressional Democrats have already begun plotting an investigation into these memos, surely sending some weary of these hearings into groans.
I sympathize. But at the heart of most of these investigations is a serious wrong decision and a flat refusal by the Administration to provide evidence and be held accountable for it. The problem isn’t so much that Congress keeps launching these annoying investigations, it’s that the Administration keeps doing these bad things. Complaining about Congress’ investigations is like an insubordinate child stamping their feet about their parents being too strict: If you didn’t break the rules in the first place, little Jimmy, we all wouldn’t have to waste so much time making you sit in the corner.
The White House has already replied that “it is a policy of the United States that we do not torture,” but this is just as juvenile as formulation. Bill Clinton may have inspired the world to collectively roll its eyes when he argued what the definition of “is” is, but the Bush Administration has anybody with an eye on them staring in shocked horror when at their definition of torture:
…torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death
Under that definition, practically any torture technique – including most employed by the Hussein regime and Iran – is not “torture”. And so, under that definition, White House spokesperson Dana Perino is right – the United States does not torture. That is why, as these newly revealed memos show, the Justice Department issued specific instructions in 2005, after a public renunciation of torture:
The new opinion…provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
As any thug-in-the-know will inform you, “head-slapping” is not so “domestic incident” as all that – it refers to a technique of constantly knocking a victim about the head to keep them disoriented and off balance. And perhaps that still sounds benign when inflicted on a grizzled martyr for Osama’s cause, but the sad fact is that isn’t exclusively who we’re interrogating. If we knew who those targets were, we wouldn’t have to interrogate anyone – we could just lock them all away and be done with it. Instead, we sweep up detainees for interrogation with what information we’re provided, which is initially pretty sparse – grabbing everyone in the immediate vicinity of an attack that owns a black Honda if the attack involved a black Honda, for instance.
The point, at this point, is only partly the end result of this kind of policy. That’s a tragic equation to be sure – detentions plus legalized torture equals innocent people tortured in mass numbers. The other significant point of this seesaw on torture policy is that it’s another sickening indication that the Administration can’t be held accountable.
During the years of the Republican-led Congress, any and all attempts to investigate the torture memos, the domestic surveillance program and the use of Private Military Contractors were so thoroughly quashed that a casual observer from the citizenry would hardly know they had been issues. Now that the Democrats are in control, we have hearings, but hearings with ignored subpoenas and direct orders from the White House not to comply that go unchallenged.
Perhaps the Congress is making some headway – some slow, rather vague headway. Most certainly, they are exhausting our patience. But at least the facts they are bringing to light are also exhausting what false pretension to competence and nobility the Administration maintains.