Thursday, April 16, 2009

The New Torture Memos

Today, the Department of Justice released several memos from the Office of Legal Counsel on the use of and legality of coercive interrogation techniques and how they are to be interpreted given US laws prohibiting torture. The memos can be found here. All of the memos are, essentially, parsing the coercive techniques to determine whether the violate US domestic laws against torture as well as US obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which the US has signed and ratified.

I haven't yet read the memos, so I can't comment in detail on the legal analyses. But, they appear to be serious attempts to define what is and what is not torture. Critics aside, this is an important distinction. Not every coercive interrogation technique is torture, so to draw the line we need to be able to define what constitutes torture. And it's not as obvious at it might seem. For example, in Ireland v UK (1978) the European Court of Human Rights ruled that several coercive interrogation techniques, including wall standing, hooding, subjectin to noise, sleep deprivatin, deprivation of food and drink -- several of which are at issue in the OLC memos -- did not constitute torture, although they were "cruel, inhuman, and degrading." Thus, the need to determine a standard of what is coercive, even if cruel, and what is torture. That is what these memos appear to try to do. That is not to say that they do the task well, or even honestly. I can't say yet. But the task itself is a necessary one.

President Obama also announced today that he would not bring charges against CIA interrogators who relied on the OLC memos for guidance as to what policies could be legally used. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department." That does seem to leave the door open to prosecuting those responsible for the legal opinions. But that remains to be seen.

Once I've read the memos, I'll comment on them.


AK said...

Thought you might be interested in... case you hadn't yet read it.

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