SPOKANE, Wash. - George W. Bush insisted that the U.S. did not use torture.
But the four Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos released last week by the Obama administration's Justice Department paint a starkly different picture. The declassified memos provided legal authorization for "harsh interrogation techniques" used by the Bush administration in the years following Sept. 11, 2001. They authorized (as listed in the Aug. 1, 2002, memo by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee) "walling ... facial slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, insects placed in a confinement box, and the waterboard."
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the OLC under Bush "became a facilitator for illegal government conduct, issuing dozens of memos meant to permit gross violations of domestic and international law."
The memos authorize what the International Committee of the Red Cross called, in a leaked report, "treatment and interrogation techniques ... that amounted to torture."
These torture techniques were developed by two psychologists based in Spokane, Wash.: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Their company, Mitchell Jessen & Associates, provided specialized training to members of the U.S. military to deal with capture by enemy forces. The training is called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Mitchell and Jessen, both psychologists, were contracted by the U.S. government to train interrogators with techniques they claimed would break prisoners.
They reverse-engineered the SERE training, originally developed to help people withstand and survive torture, to train a new generation of torturers.
The memos provide gruesome details of the torture. Waterboarding was used hundreds of times on a number of prisoners. The Bybee memo includes this Kafkaesque authorization: "You would like to place [Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him."
After President Barack Obama said there should be no prosecutions, he was received with great fanfare at the CIA this week. Mark Benjamin, the reporter who originally broke the Mitchell and Jessen story, said when I questioned him about Obama's position: "If you look at the president's statements and you combine them with the statements of Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and Eric Holder, the attorney general ... you will see that over the last couple of days the Obama administration has announced that no one, not the people who carried out the torture program or the people who designed the program or the people that authorized the program or the people who said that it was legal-even though they knew that it frankly wasn't-none of those people will ever face charges. The attorney general has announced that ... the government will pay the legal fees for anybody who is brought up on any charges anywhere in the world or has to go before Congress. They will be provided attorneys ... they have been given this blanket immunity ... in return for nothing."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein asked Obama to hold off on ruling out prosecutions until her panel finishes an investigation during the next six months. Though Obama promises to let the torturers go, others are pursuing them. Bybee is now a federal judge. A grass-roots movement, including Common Cause and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is calling on Congress to impeach Bybee. In Spain, Judge Baltasar Garzon, who got Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet indicted for crimes against humanity, has named Bybee and five others as targets of a prosecution.
For years, people have felt they have been hitting their heads against walls (some suffered this literally, as the memos detail). On Election Day, it looked like that wall had become a door. But that door is open only a crack. Whether it is kicked open or slammed shut is not up to the president. Though he may occupy the most powerful office on Earth, there is a force more powerful: committed people demanding change. We need a universal standard of justice. Torturers should be punished.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.