Monday, February 6, 2012

The Torture Memos, 10 Years Later

by Andrew Cohen


February 6, 2012

On February 7, 2002 -- ten years ago to the day, tomorrow -- President George W. Bush signed a brief memorandum titled "Humane Treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda Detainees." The caption was a cruel irony, an Orwellian bit of business, because what the memo authorized and directed was the formal abandonment of America's commitment to key provisions of the Geneva Convention. This was the day, a milestone on the road to Abu Ghraib: that marked our descent into torture -- the day, many would still say, that we lost part of our soul.

Drafted by men like John Yoo, and pushed along by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, the February 7 memo was sent to all of the key players of the Bush Administration involved in the early days of the War on Terror. All the architects and functionaries who would play a role in one of the darker moments in American legal history were in on it. Vice President Dick Cheney. Attorney General John Aschroft. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. CIA Director George Tenet. David Addington. They all got the note. And then they acted upon it.

When we talk today of the "torture memos," most of us think about the later memoranda, like the infamous "Bybee Memo" of August 1, 2002, which authorized the use of torture against terror law detainees. But those later pronouncements of policy, in one way or another, were all based upon the perversion of law and logic contained in the February 7 memo. Once America crossed the line 10 years ago, the memoranda that followed, to a large extent, were merely evidence of the grinding gears of bureaucracy trying to justify itself.

There will likely be other opportunities in 2012 to look back at some of those other memos. Perhaps Jay S. Bybee himself, inexplicably rewarded for his role in the scandal by getting a federal judgeship, will say something. Let's leave that for the dog days of August. Today is a day instead to look at one of the first of these odious documents. It is a day to note how simple and easy it was, it still is, for political leadership to make monumental decisions on our behalf without really telling us -- or by simply telling us something that isn't true.

This is not a nostalgic indictment of the Bush Administration's approach to the detainees. Ten years later, the topic is still timely. Right now, another administration is justifying another extraordinary departure from American legal policy-- the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad, with drone strikes, in a secret manner, without affording those citizens any due process. Trust us, the Bush folks said, when it comes to treatment of detainees. Trust us, the Obama White House says, now when it comes to which citizens we are entitled to kill without trial.