Double Secret Disgust

It may be years before we plumb the depths of the Bush administration’s contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and human rights generally. The New York Times uncovers a few mass graves of ethics today in a breathtaking report detailing the depths to which the oxymoronic “Bush Justice Department” would sink.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 — When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.

But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard.

It would appear to key members of the administration that the law of the land and yada yada have the same value. But not everyone was comfortable —

The Bush administration had entered uncharted legal territory beginning in 2002, holding prisoners outside the scrutiny of the International Red Cross and subjecting them to harrowing pressure tactics. They included slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding.

Never in history had the United States authorized such tactics. While President Bush and C.I.A. officials would later insist that the harsh measures produced crucial intelligence, many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that less coercive methods are equally or more effective.

Of course, to hear the contortions of moral questioning is to give one pause.

Interrogators were worried that even approved techniques had such a painful, multiplying effect when combined that they might cross the legal line, Mr. Kelbaugh said. He recalled agency officers asking: “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature — can they be combined?” Or “Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?”

Good God! But then there was Deputy Attorney General James Comey. However,

“On national security matters generally, there was a sense that Comey was a wimp and that Comey was disloyal,” said one Justice Department official who heard the White House talk, expressed with particular force by Mr. Addington.

A brief glimpse into what the White House considers disloyal and wimpy behavior:

Mr. Comey provided some hints of his thinking about interrogation and related issues in a speech that spring. Speaking at the N.S.A.’s Fort Meade campus on Law Day — a noteworthy setting for the man who had helped lead the dissent a year earlier that forced some changes in the N.S.A. program — Mr. Comey spoke of the “agonizing collisions” of the law and the desire to protect Americans.

“We are likely to hear the words: ‘If we don’t do this, people will die,’” Mr. Comey said. But he argued that government lawyers must uphold the principles of their great institutions.

“It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say ‘no’ when it matters most,” he said. “It takes moral character. It takes an understanding that in the long run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country.”

Not surprising that the White House would find this wimpy. I can imagine these “tough guys ” screening Deliverance in the White House basement, standing and cheering as their fellow good ole boy shouts “Squeal like a pig!”

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