Friday, April 17, 2009

Legalizing Torture? Part I: The 2002 Bybee Memo

[This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the recently released Office of Legal Counsel memos discussing the legality of proposed coercive interrogation methods to be used against suspected members of al Qaeda. The first memo to be considered is the August 1, 2002 memo from Jay Bybee to John Rizzo, the acting General Counsel of the CIA, entitled Interrogation of al Qaeda Operative.]

When the CIA found itself holding Abu Zubaydah, it believed that it was holding "one of the highest ranking members of the al Qaeda organization." According to the memo, "the interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information regarding terrorist networks in the United Stares or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas." To find out what Zubaydah knew, the CIA requested to expand the repertoire of interrogation techniques available to it. Specifically, the CIA asked to be able to use the following 10 techniques: "(l) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard." The report goes on to specifically detail how each technique would be used. For example, here's the description of "walling":

For walling, a flexible false wall will be constructed. The individual is placed with his heels touching the wall. The interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. It is the individual's shoulder blades that hit the wall. During this motion, the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel that provides a c-collar effect to help prevent whiplash. To further reduce the probability of injury, the individual is allowed to rebound from the flexible wall. You have orally informed us that the false wall is in part constructed to create a loud sound when the individual hits it, which will further shock or surprise the individual. In part, 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.
After describing all of the requested techniques, the memo then launches into a discussion of the effect of these techniques on individuals subjected to them as part of the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training. "Of the 26,829 students trained from 1992 through 2001 in the Air Force SERE training, 4.3 percent of those students had contact with psychology services. Of those 4.3 percent, only 3.2 percent were pulled from the program for psychological reasons. Thus, out of the students trained overall, only 0.14 percent were pulled from the program for psychological reasons." These numbers reflect people who were subjected to all of the requested techniques except for insects in the confinement box and the waterboard. Regarding the waterboard, the memo continues,

your on-site psychologists, who have extensive experience with the use of the waterboard in Navy training, have not encountered any significant long-term mental health consequences from its use. Your on-site psychologists have also indicated that JPRA has likewise not reported any significant long-term mental health consequences from the use of the waterboard. You have informed us that other services ceased use of the waterboard because it was so successful as an interrogation technique, but not because of any concerns over any harm, physical or mental, caused by it. It was almost 100 percent effective in producing cooperation among the trainees. [REDACTED] also indicated that he had observed the use of the waterboard in Navy training some ten to twelve times. Each time it resulted in cooperation but it did not result in any physical harm to the student.
In short, the memo concludes that based on the experience of those undergoing these techniques in SERE, there is no indication that these measures will cause any long-term mental or physical harm.

Bybee then turns to US law on torture: Section 2340A of the US code, which makes it illegal for any US citizen to engage in torture outside of the US. Section 2340(1) then defines torture thusly:

"torture" means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.
In turn, Section 2340(2) reads:

"severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (C) the threat of imminent death; or (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality

Thus, Bybee concludes, violating the Section 2340A "requires a showing that: (1) the torture occurred outside the United States; (2) the defendant acted under the color of law; (3) the victim was within the defendant's custody or control; (4) the defendant specifically intended to inflict severe pain or suffering; and (5) that the acted inflicted severe pain or suffering." The memo then proceeds to argue that none of the techniques in question causes "severe pain or suffering." Briefly, the OLC has concluded elsewhere that "'severe pain' within the meaning of Section 2340 is pain that is difficult for the individual to endure and is of an intensity akin to the pain accompanying serious physical injury." The memo also concludes that none of the techniques is likely to cause severe mental pain or suffering either, with two possible exceptions. Given Zubaydah's professed fear of insects (which is the rationale for putting insects in the confinement box with him), it could cause him severe mental pain or suffering if Zubaydah's believes that the insect could sting him and cause injury or death. Thus, the interrogators must either tell Zubaydah that the insect's sting (the CIA says that while it intends to tell Zubaydah that the insect is a stinging one, it intends to put a non-stinging insect in the box) cannot produce severe pain or death or should not tell him that the insect can sting at all. It also notes that "although the waterboard constitutes a tbreat of imminent death, prolonged mental harm must nonetheless result to violate the statutory prohibition on infliction of severe mental pain or suffering," which is turn defined as "mental harm lasting months or years."

Bybee does note that "under certain circumstances - for example, rapid escalation in the use of these techniques culminating in the waterboard (which we acknowledge constitutes a threat of imminent death) accompanied by verbal, or other suggestions that physical violence will follow - might cause a reasonable person to believe that they are faced with such a threat." Thus, the OLC is uncertain whether such a course would constitute a violation of the laws prohibiting torture. However, even if such circumstances occurred, to be considered torture and thus a violation of Section 2340A, the act must be committed with a specific intent to cause severe physcial or mental harm and must in fact cause severe physical or mental harm. If the interrogators do not have specific intent, there can be no torture.

Now, on to the analysis. First, this is the first chronologically of the memos...many of the most controversial techniques -- such as dousing a subject with cold water and forced nudity -- are not discussed in here, and won't be until 2005. Second, this is a serious attempt to define the boundaries of the law. While it may seem like legalistic parsing or hair splitting, let's not forget that there is, in fact, a serious threat to the US. That does not in and of itself justify torture. It does, however, justify efforts to find the strongest techniques available to interrogate suspected terrorists that are legal under US law.

That said, it seems to me that there are several problems in the legal analysis. First, I'm not so sure how accurately one can draw comparisons between those subjected to these techniques in a SERE program to a detainee's experience. The SERE people know, no matter how brutal the things being done to them, that their tormentors are their compatriots and that there are limits to what will, in fact, be done. The suspected terrorist has no such reassurances. So, while the physical effects may be the same, it seems as if the mental effects would be much worse for the detainee. [Please note that I am not in any way miniziming the SERE just doesn't seem to be really comparable in a legal sense].

Second, the requirement of specific intent is troubling. If the intent of the interrogator conducting a waterboarding session is to cause an imminent fear of death, which the OLC admits waterboarding does, can the only thing keeping this from being torture that waterboarding doesn't leave any lasting mental pain? Christopher Hitchens notes that, after voluntarily undergoing waterboarding, he suffers from panic attacks and night terrors. That may not count as "severe" mental pain and suffering, but it's getting close. And if Zubaydah does have, as the CIA believes he does, a fear on insects, confining him in a box with an insect that he may believe will sting him also seems to be pushing the line of causing severe mental pain and suffering.

As I mentioned, this memo is perhaps the most reasonable of the four that have been released, and it still seems to push the boundaries, particularly with waterboarding. However, the real problems at this stage seem to lie in the legal defintion, not in the OLC's interpretation of that wording. The law does say that there must be specific intent to cause severe pain and suffering and the law does not define in any clear way what constitutes severe mental and physical pain and suffering. It is not surprising that the administration pushed the law as far as it could in its efforts to defend the nation.

It seems difficult to conclue, I think, at this point over this memo that there is grounds for prosecution of the purveyors of this legal advice. There is a serious attempt to stay within the bounds of the law, while defining the law as liberally as possible. That may be wrong, but it doesn't seem to be criminal. As I have said before, I put more blame at this point on Congress, which never saw fit to more tightly and clearly define the rules with which it sought to limit the power of the president. As Kenneth Anderson points out in a New York Times debate on the memos, many members of Congress clearly knew what was going on:
as the Washington Post reported in December, 2007:

Yet long before “waterboarding” entered the public discourse, the C.I.A. gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.

With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter.

Most prominent among those briefed on waterboarding was Nancy Pelosi. According to the Post’s interviews, members of the Congressional oversight committees understood that they had to weigh the limits of inhumane treatment of people known to have Al Qaeda connections against the threat of new attacks. They believed that these techniques struck the right balance in the circumstances. Yet I haven’t heard of any serious call for prosecuting Speaker Pelosi or any of her colleagues for complicity in torture.
Anderson goes on to note something I have called attention to several times; Congress still has not made waterboarding illegal or passed legislation specifically defining it as torture. If Congress really wants to ensure that waterboarding or other techniques are not used, it must pass a law making such actions illegal. The fact that it doesn't hints at two things: One, that there is in fact a broader consensus on the need for such programs than people will admit publicly, and that; Two, Congress really is the feckless body, unwilling to take responsibility for the defense of the state, that we think it is.

However, to foreshadow some of the subsequent memos, we see that first, the CIA doesn't use waterboarding in the same way it is used in the SERE program, further throwing into doubt the legal reasoning of the first Bybee memo. Second, we see introduced much more controversial techniques, such as forced nudity, dietary/caloric restriction, and dousing with cold water. We also see a recognition that many of these techniques are considered torture by the United States when used by other countries.

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