The Evil that White House Lawyers Do

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday defended sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation and forcing detainees into uncomfortable positions as legitimate practices for U.S. interrogators in Iraq.

Rejecting complaints that these techniques violate international law, Rumsfeld said Pentagon lawyers had cleared them for use by U.S. interrogators.

May you never find yourself with nothing but government lawyers standing between you and torture. The New York Times reveals a few other things government lawyers signed off on:

[I]nterrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as “water boarding,” in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.

These techniques were authorized by a set of secret rules for the interrogation of high-level Qaeda prisoners, none known to be housed in Iraq, that were endorsed by the Justice Department and the C.I.A.

The C.I.A. has been operating its Qaeda detention system under a series of secret legal opinions by the agency’s and Justice Department lawyers. Those rules have provided a legal basis for the use of harsh interrogation techniques, including the water-boarding tactic used against Mr. Mohammed.

One set of legal memorandums, the officials said, advises government officials that if they are contemplating procedures that may put them in violation of American statutes that prohibit torture, degrading treatment or the Geneva Conventions, they will not be responsible if it can be argued that the detainees are formally in the custody of another country.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit “violence to life and person, in particular … cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.”

Regarding American anti-torture laws, one administration figure involved in discussions about the memorandums said: “The criminal statutes only apply to American officials. The question is how involved are the American officials.”

The official said the legal opinions say restrictions on procedures would not apply if the detainee could be deemed to be in the custody of a different country, even though American officials were getting the benefit of the interrogation. “It would be the responsibility of the other country,” the official said. “It depends on the level of involvement.”

You want a picture uglier than leering military prison guards turning loose their dogs on a naked cowering prisoner? Uglier than masked jihadists sawing off the neck of a civilian contractor? Try picturing a bunch of lawyers sitting around trying to find the loopholes in the torture prohibitions of the Geneva Conventions.

Lawyers don’t come cheap, and from the looks of the articles I’ve excerpted above, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the C.I.A. each have their own set of eager loophole-hunters. Keep those taxes coming.

Update: ABC News has more on the interrogation techniques that the U.S. military teaches. “The U.S. military has taught future interrogators how to cause physical pain while questioning detainees but remain technically within limits set by the Geneva Conventions,” the report begins.

From the sound of it, this is more fanciful loophole-seeking. Just like the New York Times report above has lawyers suggesting that if you want to torture somebody, just make-believe that they’re really some other country’s prisoner and it’s okay, this ABC News report says things like this:

Even the need for a medical IV can be used to interrogators’ advantage, they said. “Sometimes it takes them three or four times to poke you till they put the needle into the vein. Well, it can also take 12 times,” said Rafael Chaiken, 28. “It’s not very pleasant, and you’re not breaking the Geneva Convention, and you might get some information out of him.”

Note that this isn’t some rogue prison guard justifying his behavior after the fact, but a trainee describing how interrogation techniques are taught by the U.S. military.

Next we’ll be hearing interrogators saying things like “we grabbed the detainees arm and moved it quickly in such a way that it repeatedly struck the detainee’s face, meanwhile saying ‘stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself,’ which is technically not a violation of the requirement that we not physically abuse the detainee.”

You can read the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War on the web if you care to. If you’re not a lawyer with a secret lawyer decoder ring, you won’t be able to find the exceptions for “unlawful combatants” or the otherwise-invisible footnotes in the section that reads: