When the Bush administration finally had to admit that simulated drowning or waterboarding was used on its highest value prisoners, the administration played down the episodes by asserting that only three al-Qaida suspects were subjected to the treatment. It turns out the technique was not just used once or twice on each prisoner, but dozens and dozens of times on at least two of the three — even after CIA operatives believed that one detainee had nothing more to tell.
Waterboarding, where a prisoner has water poured onto his face until he feels he is drowning, has historically been seen by the United States as an instrument of torture. But as the newly released Bush Justice Department memos make clear, the administration had other ideas. President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the memos reflect the United States "losing our moral bearings,'' a depressingly accurate assessment.
An August 2002 memo signed by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, now a federal appellate court judge, specifically authorized waterboarding. That same month, an al-Qaida functionary named Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. Zubaydah was cooperating with interrogators and providing information before he was subject to serious abuse. A 2004 inspector general report said that the interrogation team found Zubaydah to be "compliant" but that people at CIA headquarters thought he was holding out.
According to the New York Times, the harsh measures "produced no breakthroughs." But as CIA headquarters kept ordering more misery for Zubaydah, the agents inflicting it started being traumatized, too. Torment doesn't just dehumanize the victim; it degrades the tormentor.
Even when dealing with self-confessed bad guy Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who takes credit for planning 9/11, the fact that he was waterboarded 183 times blurs the moral equation. His treatment was so brutal that CIA interrogators worried they had crossed a legal boundary and eventually stopped the questioning.
Obama did the right thing by releasing the four memos. He was under pressure from within the intelligence community, including his own CIA director, to hold them back. But as the president explained to CIA employees on Monday, we are stronger when we "deploy … the power of our values, including the rule of law." That includes a public acknowledgement when those values are violated.
Obama is also right to shield CIA agents from prosecution if they followed the interrogation guidelines approved by the Justice Department — and to remain open to prosecuting those who issued the approvals. The architects of the torture regime should not escape scrutiny. It was the Justice Department lawyers and their higher- ups who designed and authorized this morally repugnant program of prisoner abuse, and they should be held accountable.