It will take some time to absorb the full implications of the ICRC report and the OLC memos. Right now, many are understandably focused on the legal details, the grotesque specifics of the techniques ("insects", "walling"?), the inconsistencies of the memos, the weakness of the legal arguments, the human context in which some of these decisions were made. I certainly think we have to remember the climate of terror and fear of the unknown that followed the 9/11 attacks, a climate that dragged all of us, including this blogger, to places we now wish we hadn't gone. And it's equally important to remember the sense of responsibility Bush and Cheney must have felt for already presiding over the worst attack on the mainland US in history. This helps explain, even if it does not excuse, the extremism of a Yoo or Cheney, whose eagerness to prove the absolute power of an untrammeled executive branch led us into the legal and moral and strategic darkness.
No: what is far more important and far graver is the decision after the 2004 re-election, after the original period of panic, to set up a torture program, replete with every professional and bureaucratic nicety. This is why the Bradbury memo of 2005 is so much more chilling in its way. This was long after Abu Ghraib, long after the initial panic, and a pre-meditated attempt to turn the US into a secret torture state. These legal memos construct a form of torture, through various classic torture techniques, used separately and in combination, that were to be used systematically, by a professional torture team along the lines proposed by Charles Krauthammer, and buttressed by a small army of lawyers, psychologists and doctors - especially doctors - to turn the US into a torture state. The legal limits were designed to maximize the torture while minimizing excessive physical damage, to take prisoners to the edge while making sure, by the use of medical professionals, that they did not die and would not have permanent injuries.
The core point of this, one infers from the memos, is to create a sense among the prisoners that their assumptions about the West, the US, and countries constructed on the rule of law are without any basis whatever.
The torture techniques were all the more brutal in order to push back against the reputation of the US even in the minds of Qaeda or alleged Qaeda members. What Mukasey and Hayden are arguing for today is a scheme whereby, in secret, the US government credibly allows captives to believe they are in an endless, bottomless pit of extra-legal terror. This is the state of mind they are trying to construct by torture. That's the point of the sensory deprivation, the disappearances, the sequestering from the Red Cross, the endless solitary confinement, the IRFing, the hoods, the nudity, and all the other sadism. It is precisely to persuade the barbarians that we are as bad as they are and have no limits and no qualms in doing to them whatever we want.
Looked at from a distance, the Bush administration wanted to do two things at once: to declare to the world that freedom is on the march, and human rights are coming to the world with American help, while simultaneously declaring to captives that the US has no interest in the law, human rights, accountability, transparency or humanity. They wanted to give hope to all the oppressed of the planet, while surgically banishing all hope from the prisoners they captured and tortured. And the only way they could pull this off is by the total secrecy they constructed and defended. So we had a public government respectful of the rule of law, and a secret government whose main goal was persuading terror suspects that there was no rule of law at all. It is hard to convey just how dangerous this was and is.
Moreover, this was done by the professional classes in this society. It was not done by Lynndie England or some night-shift sadists at Abu Ghraib. According to these documents, almost nothing that was done at Abu Ghraib was outside the limits agreed to by Bush - and much of what was done at Abu Ghraib was mild in comparison. So when the president acted "shocked" at what we all saw, and said it was not America, he was also authorizing far worse in secret - and systematizing it long after Abu Ghraib was over. He was either therefore a fantastic liar on one of the gravest matters imaginable or so psychologically compartmentalized and prone to rigid denial of reality and so unversed in history, law and morality that he had no reason being president.