In defending these policies since you left office, you have insisted that all of these techniques were legal. But one of the key lawyers who provided your legal defense, John Yoo, is on record as saying that your inherent executive power allowed you to order the legal crushing of an innocent child’s testicles if you believed that it could get intelligence out of his father. Yoo also favored a definition of torture that allowed literally anything to be done to a helpless prisoner short of causing death or the permanent loss of a major organ. The Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture offer blanket legal bans on anything that even looks like torture. Yoo set up a mirror image: a blanket legal permission to do anything abusive to a prisoner, hedged only by the need not to kill him. If that is your defense of the legality of torture, it is a profoundly weak one.
But leave the question of legality aside. Skilled lawyers can argue anything. Examine the moral and ethical question. Could any moral person who saw the abuse of human beings at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama, and uncounted black sites across the globe and at sea believe it was in compliance with America’s “respect” and “law and freedom”? As president, your job was not to delegate moral responsibility for these acts, but to take moral responsibility for them. You said a decade ago: “Once you put your hand on the Bible and swear in [to public office], you must set a high standard and be responsible for your own actions.”
The point of this letter, Mr. President, is to beg you to finally take responsibility for this stain on American honor and this burden on a war we must win. It is to plead with you to own what happened under your command, and to reject categorically the phony legalisms, criminal destruction of crucial evidence, and retrospective rationalizations used to pretend that none of this happened. It happened. You once said, “I’m worried about a culture that says … ‘If you’ve got a problem blame somebody else.’” I am asking you to stop blaming others for the consequences of decisions you made.
What are you responsible for, exactly? Books have been written on this. But let’s take just three of the more bland-sounding techniques you authorized and extended and defended: “sleep deprivation” and “stress positions” and “temperature extremes.” As words and phrases, they can seem quite banal, and I can understand how you could have authorized techniques that sound like things most college sophomores or law clerks regularly endure. But in practice, they are brutal treatments designed to break the will and wash the brain of anyone subjected to them for a lengthy period.
Sleep deprivation was pioneered by the Inquisition; not only does it produce hallucinations, which were useful for proving heresy, but it also increases physical sensitivity. As Darius Rejali, the historian of torture, has noted, it “reduces a body’s tolerance for musculoskeletal pain, causing deep aches first in the lower part of the body, followed by similar pains in the upper body.” The combination of sleep deprivation and stress positions leads to unbearable mental and physical suffering. It was used by the Gestapo, by Franco’s security services, and even in the early part of the 20th century by American police. Use of sleep deprivation to procure confessions in domestic law enforcement was actually barred by the Supreme Court in 1944 (Ashcraft v. Tennessee) after a suspect was kept awake for 36 hours. The Court compared his treatment to the “physical or mental torture” used by “certain foreign nations.” And yet you, Mr. President, more than a half-century later, authorized subjecting prisoners to this technique for up to 72 hours, or 40 hours if combined with standing in handcuff restraints. In 2002, troops in Afghanistan coined the term monstering to describe one interrogator’s war against a prisoner’s desperate need for sleep.