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.