April 20, 2009 | Wall Street Journal
The Memos Prove We Didn’t Torture
The four memos on CIA interrogation released by the White House last week reveal a cautious and conservative Justice Department advising a CIA that cared deeply about staying within the law. Far from “green lighting” torture — or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees — the memos detail the actual techniques used and the many measures taken to ensure that interrogations did not cause severe pain or degradation.
Interrogations were to be “continuously monitored” and “the interrogation team will stop the use of particular techniques or the interrogation altogether if the detainee's medical or psychological conditions indicates that the detainee might suffer significant physical or mental harm.”
An Aug. 1, 2002, memo describes the practice of “walling” — recently revealed in a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which suggested that detainees wore a “collar” used to “forcefully bang the head and body against the wall” before and during interrogation. In fact, detainees were placed with their backs to a “flexible false wall,” designed to avoid inflicting painful injury. Their shoulder blades — not head — were the point of contact, and the “collar” was used not to give additional force to a blow, but further to protect the neck.
The memo says the point was to inflict psychological uncertainty, not physical pain: “the idea is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result from the action.”
Shackling and confinement in a small space (generally used to create discomfort and muscle fatigue) were also part of the CIA program, but they were subject to stringent time and manner limitations. Abu Zubaydah (a top bin Laden lieutenant) had a fear of insects. He was, therefore, to be put in a “cramped confinement box” and told a stinging insect would be put in the box with him. In fact, the CIA proposed to use a harmless caterpillar. Confinement was limited to two hours.
The memos are also revealing about the practice of “waterboarding,” about which there has been so much speculative rage from the program's opponents. The practice, used on only three individuals, involved covering the nose and mouth with a cloth and pouring water over the cloth to create a drowning sensation.
This technique could be used for up to 40 seconds — although the CIA orally informed Justice Department lawyers that it would likely not be used for more than 20 seconds at a time. Unlike the exaggerated claims of so many Bush critics, the memos make clear that water was not actually expected to enter the detainee's lungs, and that measures were put in place to prevent complications if this did happen and to ensure that the individual did not develop respiratory distress.
All of these interrogation methods have been adapted from the U.S. military's own Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (or SERE) training program, and have been used for years on thousands of American service members with the full knowledge of Congress. This has created a large body of information about the effect of these techniques, on which the CIA was able to draw in assessing the likely impact on the detainees and ensuring that no severe pain or long term psychological impact would result.
The actual intelligence benefits of the CIA program are also detailed in these memos. The CIA believed, evidently with good reason, that the enhanced interrogation program had indeed produced actionable intelligence about al Qaeda's plans. First among the resulting successes was the prevention of a “second wave” of al Qaeda attacks, to be carried out by an “east Asian” affiliate, which would have involved the crashing of another airplane into a building in Los Angeles.
The interrogation techniques described in these memos are indisputably harsh, but they fall well short of “torture.” They were developed and deployed at a time of supreme peril, as a means of preventing future attacks on innocent civilians both in the U.S. and abroad.
The dedicated public servants at the CIA and Justice Department — who even the Obama administration has concluded should not be prosecuted — clearly cared intensely about staying within the law as well as protecting the American homeland. These memos suggest that they achieved both goals in a manner fully consistent with American values.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey, who served in the Justice Department under George H.W. Bush, were U.S. delegates to the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.