all I have is an update on the whole torture policy issue. If you’re sick of hearing about it, move along. The White House has finally started being significantly more direct and revealing about its views on the matter, and so there’s a lot that’s come out in the last couple of days that helps to clarify some of the things I’ve discussed here over the last few weeks.
’s release of documents related to the White House deliberations on the permitted extent of detention and interrogation methods is being criticized for being selective, which it does seem to be. However it appears to me to be a significant and real backing-down from the “torture isn’t evil when we do it” position — significant in part because the Dubya Squad has had other opportunities recently to explicitly disavow torture and they instead put on a verbal dog-and-pony show to get around giving a straight answer.
Now, while occasionally the language gets slippery, the answers for the most part are much straighter. Here are some quotes from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales at a press briefing held yesterday:
- [President Bush has] made it clear, in the war against al Qaeda and its supporters, the United States will follow its treaty obligations and U.S. law, both of which prohibit the use of torture. And this has been firm U.S. policy since the outset of this administration and it remains our policy today.
- I will reemphasize today that the President has not authorized, ordered or directed in any way any activity that would transgress the standards of the torture conventions or the torture statute, or other applicable laws.
- The President has given no order or directive that would immunize from prosecution anyone engaged in conduct that constitutes torture. All interrogation techniques actually authorized have been carefully vetted, are lawful, and do not constitute torture.
- [T]his briefing does not include CIA activities. I will say that all interrogation techniques authorized for use by the Agency against the Taliban and al Qaeda and in Iraq are lawful and do not constitute torture. But to disclose anything more would be irresponsible during this period of ongoing conflict.
- I want to reaffirm yet again that the United States has very high values. We do not engage in torture. We are bound by the convention against torture, as ratified by the United States. Whatever broad language might be included in this legal memo, the United States government has never authorized torture in reliance on the argument that the convention against torture, or the torture statute are somehow inapplicable to the current conflict. To the contrary. All interrogation techniques authorized for use against the Taliban and al Qaeda and in Iraq have been carefully vetted and determined to not constitute torture under the definition provided by Congress and the convention against torture, as ratified by the United States.
Now it’s still possible that Gonzales is just lying — it’s not like it would be unheard of for someone from the Dubya Squad to just toss out a stream of fibs — but these tightly-worded denials are certainly a step up from the weaselly non-denials we’ve heard up ’til now, even if you can’t necessarily take them at face value.
Under questioning, Gonzales backed down a bit from the last statement I quoted: that the White House is using the definition of torture “provided by Congress and the convention against torture” — responding to a question by saying instead that “[t]he definition of torture that the administration uses is the definition that Congress has given us in the torture statute and the reservation of the torture convention” (emphasis mine).
This should raise some eyebrows, because the legal memos used this same set of Congressional language to conclude that torture had to be extremely severe (“equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death”) and done with a primary intent to torture in order to earn the name “torture.” Gonzales went on to summarize this definition as: “a specific intent to inflict severe physical or mental harm or suffering. That’s the definition that Congress has given us and that’s the definition that we use.” He dodged a follow-up question on this, referring to another briefing that the Justice Department would give (but that I can’t find a transcript for).
So although this press briefing represents progress towards a “zero tolerance” policy towards torture, it still seems to leave the door open for things that most of us would consider to be torture (particularly if we were on the receiving end) but that don’t meet this narrower definition.
Pointedly not disavowed was the legal opinion that the president could — by invoking what was being called “the Commander-in-Chief override power” — approve torture, Congress and its definitions be damned. In place of this, the speakers at the press briefing repeatedly said that the president has not in fact actually exercised this theoretical torture imprimatur.
Of course now we know that all of this was fundamentally dishonest and that the White House was in fact authorizing the torture of its prisoners.