We don't like our evil to be banal. Ten years after Columbine, it only now may be sinking in that the psychopathic killers were not jock-hating dorks from a "Trench Coat Mafia," or, as ABC News maintained at the time, "part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement." In the new best seller "Columbine," the journalist Dave Cullen reaffirms that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.
On Tuesday, it will be five years since Americans first confronted the photographs from Abu Ghraib on "60 Minutes II." Here, too, we want to cling to myths that quarantine the evil. If our country committed torture, surely it did so to prevent Armageddon, in a patriotic ticking-time-bomb scenario out of "24." If anyone deserves blame, it was only those identified by President Bush as "a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values": promiscuous, sinister-looking lowlifes like Lynddie England, Charles Graner and the other grunts who were held accountable while the top command got a pass.
We've learned much, much more about America and torture in the past five years. But as Mark Danner recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, for all the revelations, one essential fact remains unchanged: "By no later than the summer of 2004, the American people had before them the basic narrative of how the elected and appointed officials of their government decided to torture prisoners and how they went about it." When the Obama administration said it declassified four new torture memos 10 days ago in part because their contents were already largely public, it was right.
Yet we still shrink from the hardest truths and the bigger picture: that torture was a premeditated policy approved at our government's highest levels; that it was carried out in scenarios that had no resemblance to "24"; that psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and that, in the assessment of reliable sources like the F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.
The newly released Justice Department memos, like those before them, were not written by barely schooled misfits like England and Graner. John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee graduated from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan and Brigham Young. They have passed through white-shoe law firms like Covington & Burling, and Sidley Austin.
Judge Bybee's résumé tells us that he has four children and is both a Cubmaster for the Boy Scouts and a youth baseball and basketball coach. He currently occupies a tenured seat on the United States Court of Appeals. As an assistant attorney general, he was the author of the Aug. 1, 2002, memo endorsing in lengthy, prurient detail interrogation "techniques" like "facial slap (insult slap)" and "insects placed in a confinement box."
He proposed using 10 such techniques "in some sort of escalating fashion, culminating with the waterboard, though not necessarily ending with this technique." Waterboarding, the near-drowning favored by Pol Pot and the Spanish Inquisition, was prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II. But Bybee concluded that it "does not, in our view, inflict ‘severe pain or suffering.' "
Still, it's not Bybee's perverted lawyering and pornographic amorality that make his memo worthy of special attention. It merits a closer look because it actually does add something new - and, even after all we've heard, something shocking - to the five-year-old torture narrative. When placed in full context, it's the kind of smoking gun that might free us from the myths and denial that prevent us from reckoning with this ugly chapter in our history.
Bybee's memo was aimed at one particular detainee, Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured some four months earlier, in late March 2002. Zubaydah is portrayed in the memo (as he was publicly by Bush after his capture) as one of the top men in Al Qaeda. But by August this had been proven false. As Ron Suskind reported in his book "The One Percent Doctrine," Zubaydah was identified soon after his capture as a logistics guy, who, in the words of the F.B.I.'s top-ranking Qaeda analyst at the time, Dan Coleman, served as the terrorist group's flight booker and "greeter," like "Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace." Zubaydah "knew very little about real operations, or strategy." He showed clinical symptoms of schizophrenia.
By the time Bybee wrote his memo, Zubaydah had been questioned by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for months and had given what limited information he had. His most valuable contribution was to finger Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind. But, as Jane Mayer wrote in her book "The Dark Side," even that contribution may have been old news: according to the 9/11 commission, the C.I.A. had already learned about Mohammed during the summer of 2001. In any event, as one of Zubaydah's own F.B.I. questioners, Ali Soufan, wrote in a Times Op-Ed article last Thursday, traditional interrogation methods had worked. Yet Bybee's memo purported that an "increased pressure phase" was required to force Zubaydah to talk.
As soon as Bybee gave the green light, torture followed: Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002, according to another of the newly released memos. Unsurprisingly, it appears that no significant intelligence was gained by torturing this mentally ill Qaeda functionary. So why the overkill? Bybee's memo invoked a ticking time bomb: "There is currently a level of ‘chatter' equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks."
We don't know if there was such unusual "chatter" then, but it's unlikely Zubaydah could have added information if there were. Perhaps some new facts may yet emerge if Dick Cheney succeeds in his unexpected and welcome crusade to declassify documents that he says will exonerate administration interrogation policies. Meanwhile, we do have evidence for an alternative explanation of what motivated Bybee to write his memo that August, thanks to the comprehensive Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees released last week.
The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: "A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful." As higher-ups got more "frustrated" at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, "there was more and more pressure to resort to measures" that might produce that intelligence.
In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration's ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee's memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) "Downing Street memo," in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." A month after Bybee's memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on "Meet the Press," hyping both Saddam's W.M.D.s and the "number of contacts over the years" between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.
But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus "intelligence" from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.
Last week Bush-Cheney defenders, true to form, dismissed the Senate Armed Services Committee report as "partisan." But as the committee chairman, Carl Levin, told me, the report received unanimous support from its members - John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman included.
Levin also emphasized the report's accounts of military lawyers who dissented from White House doctrine - only to be disregarded. The Bush administration was "driven," Levin said. By what? "They'd say it was to get more information. But they were desperate to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq."
Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to "protect" us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from "another 9/11," torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House's illegality.
Levin suggests - and I agree - that as additional fact-finding plays out, it's time for the Justice Department to enlist a panel of two or three apolitical outsiders, perhaps retired federal judges, "to review the mass of material" we already have. The fundamental truth is there, as it long has been. The panel can recommend a legal path that will insure accountability for this wholesale betrayal of American values.
President Obama can talk all he wants about not looking back, but this grotesque past is bigger than even he is. It won't vanish into a memory hole any more than Andersonville, World War II internment camps or My Lai. The White House, Congress and politicians of both parties should get out of the way. We don't need another commission. We don't need any Capitol Hill witch hunts. What we must have are fair trials that at long last uphold and reclaim our nation's commitment to the rule of law.