A pending court case could expose the administration's torture regime.
FROM THE FIRST DAYS after the Abu Ghraib photos hit the airwaves, the torture scandal has epitomized the worst of the Bush presidency. A timid media, a cowardly opposition party, and a refusal by most Americans to face the grisly facts has contained the damage since 2004. But the web of lies and lawlessness is rapidly unraveling. Leaks, foreign challenges, military officers revolting, and a pending Supreme Court case could set off a tidal wave of revulsion against the administration's barbaric policies.
When President Bush was pressed by NBC's Matt Lauer last September about the use of brutal interrogation methods, he replied, "Whatever we have done is legal. . . . We had lawyers look at it and say, 'Mr. President, this is lawful.'" But Bush's legal lackeys also proclaim that the president's command is the highest law, and U.S. torture has been confirmed by FBI agents, former military interrogators, a DoD Inspector General report, and court cases around the globe.
Denial has been the Bush team's first line of defense. From early 2005 onward, Bush repeatedly declared that the U.S. does not use rendition-the transport of terror suspects to other countries where they are tortured. He told the New York Times in January 2005 that "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Doing so would be a federal crime.
But the evidence of CIA "torture taxis" secretly racing around the globe carrying gagged, sedated detainees to some of the most brutal regimes in the world proved too much for Bush to deny. He revised his defense in April 2005: "We operate within the law and we send people to countries where they say they are not going to torture people." But then why would the U.S. go to the trouble of kidnapping people-Canadian Maher Arar, who was grabbed at JFK Airport and renditioned to Syria or Australian Mamduh Habib, seized in Pakistan and flown to Egypt, for instance-and tiirning them over to governments the U.S. has long denounced for using torture?
In June, the Council of Europe issued a report condemning the CIA's exploitation of NATO military agreements to run secret prisons in Romania and Poland where detainees were tortured. The report called for banning "the Bush administration mindset" that says "if it is illegal for us to use such a practice at home or on our own citizens, let us export or outsource it so we will not be held to account for it."
While Bush bears ultimate blame for the U.S. embrace of torture, Vice President Cheney's team often drove the policy. The Washington Post reported on June 25 that starting in January 2002, "Cheney turned his attention to the practical business of crushing a captive's will to resist. The vice president's office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion in U.S. custody." The Post noted, "Cheney and his allies ... pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden 'torture' and permitted use of 'cruel, inhuman or degrading' methods of questioning." The Geneva Conventions, which are binding under U.S. law, make no such distinction.
The key was a radical new understanding of torture spelled out in an Aug. 1, 2002 Justice Department memo that narrowed the definition to suffering "equivalent in intensity" to "organ failure ... or even death." Call it a license to almost kill.
Top military experts opposed the redefinition, but a few high-ranking civilian appointees at the Pentagon scorned the veterans. Cheney has been especially enthusiastic about simulated drowning of detainees known as waterboarding even though the U.S. government classified this as a war crime in 1947.
Though neoconservatives have always prided themselves on being more anti-Soviet than God, the U.S. government turned to an unlikely source for inspiration to fulfill Cheney's vision of shattering detainees' resistance. After 9/11, the Pentagon and CIA "reverse engineered" many Soviet interrogation techniques that the U. …