President Obama's Whitewashed History of U.S. Torture

The Bush administration's interrogation policy cannot be written off as a panicked aberration that ended in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Larry Downing/Reuters

When President Obama declared last week that "we tortured some folks," the headlines focused on the fact that he spoke relatively plainly about Bush-era interrogations. Yet in the same comments he put forth inaccurate information on torture. "In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong," he said. "I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national-security teams to try to deal with this."

This statement would be perfect if the Bush administration had tortured a few al-Qaeda members on September 12, 2001, to see if any more attacks were imminent. Perhaps it could even help to explain torture perpetrated in late 2001 and 2002. But torture didn't stop in "the immediate aftermath of 9/11." Torture did not stop once it was abundantly clear that 9/11 would not be followed by imminent attacks (if only because years had passed and another attack had not, in fact, occurred).

On May 10, 2005, "Steven Bradbury of the OLC authored a detailed, 46-page memo to John Rizzo, the CIA counsel, authorizing a variety of coercive interrogation techniques and arguing that even the harshest techniques are not torture," Annie Lowrey noted in her helpful timeline on Bush administration torture.

In 2006, she added, Dick Cheney "said waterboarding's a no-brainer" in an radio interview. Cheney wasn't cowering in the wreckage of the Twin Towers in 2006. His was the cool-headed assessment of a man who'd painstakingly helped to create a legal regime calculated to permit torture of prisoners for the foreseeable future, partly by cloaking the abuse in the euphemism "enhanced interrogations." Even in 2007, George W. Bush "thwarted congressional efforts to restrict CIA interrogation techniques to those authorized for the military and signed an executive order allowing the CIA to use harsher methods."

Contra Obama, "we did some things that were wrong" long after "the immediate aftermath of 9/11," nor was torture restricted to uncovering imminent threats. "This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law. It cannot be legally or morally excused by any contingency," Andrew Sullivan writes, adding, "It is not as if the entire country has come to the conclusion that these war crimes must never happen again. The GOP ran a pro-torture candidate in 2012; they may well run a pro-torture candidate in 2016. This evil—which destroys the truth as surely as it destroys the human soul—is still with us."

Despite the danger of torture being used again in the near future, Obama is using rhetoric and drawing on the credibility he gained by opposing torture to present what the Bush administration did in more flattering terms than reality justifies, even as he continues letting the CIA repress much of the Senate torture report. When elected, he promised hope and change, not equivocation and whitewashing.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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