Above the Fold: Memos of (Mis)understanding

For the torture memos, too, sunlight is the best disinfectant

Barack Obama acted intelligently and courageously yesterday by making the Bush administration’s torture memos public, despite the strong objections of past and present CIA officials. None of the protests were very credible, partly because almost everything in these memos detailing American torture practices—except for the one that involved confining an entomophobia-afflicted detainee with an insect—had already been unearthed by great reporters like Jane Mayer and Mark Danner. ”Withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time,” Obama explained.

So when people like former CIA director Michael Hayden asserted that the memos’ declassification would reveal valuable secrets to our enemies, it simply wasn’t true.

As he made the torture memos public, President Obama also assured the CIA that its operatives would not be prosecuted for carrying out the techniques the memos laid out. Although I disagree with Obama’s decision to hold the torturers harmless by promising not to prosecute them, it’s important to remember that the president specifically excluded Bush administration policymakers—the people ultimately responsible for the disastrous decisions that sanctioned torture—from his blanket pardon. The most optimistic interpretation here is that by making these repellent documents public, Obama is actually hoping to increase the pressure to prosecute the top officials who were responsible for them.

But New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane waited until the tenth paragraph—and the jump—of their story about the torture memos today to mention Obama’s promise that none of the CIA officers who participated in torture will be prosecuted. And they waited another ten graphs to mention that anyone in America had objected to the president’s decision not to prosecute those CIA officers. 

In The Washington Post, Carrie Johnson and Julie Tate reported the prosecution controversy this way:

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups …strongly [condemned] Obama’s decision to forgo prosecutions and [demanded] that those who authorized and carried out interrogation methods such as waterboarding be held accountable.

“We have to look back before we can move forward as a nation,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement. “When crimes have been committed, the American legal system demands accountability. President Obama’s assertion that there should not be prosecutions of government officials who may have committed crimes before a thorough investigation has been carried out is simply untenable.”

All the Times reported was, “The A.C.L.U. said the memos clearly describe criminal conduct and underscore the need to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate who authorized and carried out torture.” At least that was one paragraph more than the reporters managed to include in their initial story about the memo’s release, which was posted yesterday on the Times’s Web site.

But, then, since Mazzetti and Shane have repeatedly acted as uncritical conduits of the CIA line on all of these matters, it is hardly surprising that they underplayed the opposition to the president’s decision to immunize the CIA officers who broke international law by torturing their prisoners.

At a minimum, the memos’ release should increase the pressure for an independent investigation into U.S. torture practices. As The Washington Post noted,  Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who has been advocating such an investigation, called the newly released memos “chilling” and added that their content was “as alarming as I feared it would be.”

The main reason such an investigation is necessary is to debunk the argument that valuable information has been gathered through these disgusting techniques. While it is true that torture can sometimes produce genuine intelligence, it is also true that experienced interrogators are in overwhelming agreement that non-coercive techniques are much more likely to produce valuable information than torture can.

Dick Cheney and his friends may still be claiming that such methods produced information that, in turn, prevented additional attacks on American soil. But there is no evidence that that is true. No less an authority than FBI director Robert Mueller, asked by Vanity Fair about that claim last year, said, “I don’t believe that has been the case.”  

Some day, The New York Times may get around to reporting that comment. As far as FCP can tell, it never has. 

When President Obama first took office, he banned all the torture techniques described in these memos. But he also ordered a six-month-long investigation into whether all federal agencies should be permanently limited to the interrogation techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual. Appearing on MSNBC yesterday, former CIA director Michael Hayden unwittingly offered one of the best reasons for sunlight. Per Hayden:

To the degree that we make these techniques public—we tell our enemies the outer limits of American interrogation techniques—it mutes the study that the president directed, because it will effectively take these techniques off the table, because our enemies will know all of our approaches to him.

If, indeed, the president’s actions have “taken these techniques” off the table for good, that will be the best possible outcome for America.


The full text of the president’s statement on the torture memos can be found here.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.