Torturers justifying to themselves that they are not torturers.
It's been clear since the first allegations emerged of mistreatment of detainees that just like all the other regimes which subsequently fell, with their secrets and misdemeanours exposed through documents, the Bush administration didn't just discuss what it was doing in secret and on a need to know basis: it left behind a distinct paper trail, of which these memos are just the latest example. The most notorious was perhaps the stress techniques which Donald Rumsfeld signed off with the pithy justification that considering he stood for 8-10 hours a day, why couldn't the detainees be forced to stand for longer than 4 hours? This sort of thinking and a general complete lack of concern at what they were ordering others to do is evident throughout the documents and memos that have so far been released.
The key document of the four released, although the others also have significant sections, is the August the 1st 2002 memo from Jay S. Bybee, then assistant attorney general to John Rizzo, the acting general counsel for the CIA. Rizzo was specifically asking whether 10 "techniques", including the most notorious, "waterboarding", would violate the prohibition against torture "found at Section 2340A of title 18 of the United States Code", as the CIA intended to use them against Abu Zubaydah, at that point the most senior alleged al-Qaida leader to be captured. The document, which recounts in minute detail just how the "enhanced techniques" would be used, is chilling. Of these, the most disturbing is the blithe way in which Bybee recounts that Rizzo had previously informed him that they would not deprive Zubaydah of sleep for more than 11 days, having already kept him awake for more than 72 hours, of how they wished to confine Zubaydah in a box, in which an insect would be placed, Zubaydah apparently having a fear of such creatures, while not informing him that the insect would be completely harmless, and finally of how they would waterboard him, where the simulated drowning would not last longer than 20 minutes, and sessions as a whole would last 2 hours.
Quite why Bybee doesn't just say immediately that he completely agrees that what Rizzo is proposing doesn't amount to torture is unclear, as the arguments he then details are simply pitiful. These amount to little more than the fact that soldiers that were trained in SERE techniques did for the most part not suffer any long-term side-effects as a result of being treated in the same way as they were proposing to deal with Zubaydah. This is akin to comparing apples to oranges: there is a world of difference between undergoing these techniques once or twice with friends and professionals that you trust so that if you are captured you both know what to expect and how to deal with it, and instead having them repeatedly used on you, by people you neither trust and who you quite reasonably believe have the intention and the means to harm you if you don't co-operate with them, despite not being able to comply with their demands.
This finally culminates in Bybee admitting that waterboarding constitutes a threat of imminent death, which directly breaches Section 2340A. This however is not a problem, as Bybee decides that "prolonged mental harm must nonetheless result to violate the statutory prohibition", and, judging by Rizzo's authoritative and extensive research into the long-term effects of such procedures on SERE students, no such mental harm has been recognised. If things were not already Orwellian enough, Bybee then continues onward, concluding that additionally, there has to be "specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering" for there to be a breach of the prohibition. Despite the fact that the CIA would be using such measures on Zubaydah deliberately in order to get him to talk, because of how they are using these methods in "good faith", and restricting themselves so that they are not abused beyond acceptable limits, there would be no such specific intent. This is no more and no less than torturers justifying to themselves that they are not torturers. It's the sort of thing which dictatorships indulge in; this is the land of the free and the home of the brave resorting to such methods after 9/11 swifter than the likes of Soviet Russia did.
The results of Zubaydah's torture were worryingly predictable. Differences remain between those who claim he was a significant member of al-Qaida and those that instead claim that he was on the periphery, but what is beyond doubt is that in response to his treatment he told his interrogators anything and everything, including details of numerous false plots and individuals, all of which came to nothing. Likewise, the far more senior Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who became so adept at being waterboarded that he impressed and gained the respect of his interrogators, talked himself into being possibly the most dastardly terrorist in history, the only detail missing from his claims being that he wasn't the one who fired the second shot from the grassy knoll. Even if you completely disagree with the argument that you shouldn't abuse the detainees you capture for moral reasons, the reason to oppose torture is that it simply doesn't work, illustrated perfectly by Zubaydah.
There is one other key passage in one of the other memos which perfectly sums up the hypocrisy and contempt that the Bush administration had when it came to international obligations regarding torture:
In other words: we know full well what we're doing is torture, but the fact that we condemn others for doing exactly what we are isn't going to stop us from continuing with it.
Obama released the documents saying that there would be no prosecutions of those responsible, and this should be a time for "reflection, not retribution". That's fair enough where it concerns those that actually carried out the mistreatment, although post-Nuremberg and indeed, post-Bush, it should be no excuse to say that you were only following orders. Those who should be held accountable however are the ones that wrote these documents, the ones above them that were the ones really pulling the strings, and especially those who both then and now continue to defend the use of such methods. Those who first proposed these techniques are those responsible for them being used routinely, as we saw at Abu Ghraib. As before though, it seems likely that once again it will be the little people that serve the jail sentences while the real war criminals can write their memoirs and parade around the lecture circuit.