A dozen years after 9/11, many movement conservatives still want to have it both ways. They want to insist that the Bush Administration was correct to strap prisoners down, prevent them from breathing, and force water into their lungs to terrify them with the sensation of drowning; that it was proper to intimidate them with dogs, slam heads into walls, and deprive them of sleep and darkness; but also that these tactics didn't amount to torture, just "enhanced interrogations." They would strenuously object if George W. Bush's obituary mentioned that, under his leadership, the United States government systematically and illegally tortured people.
Establishment media is averse to the "t" word too. Partisan and ideological disagreements about whether the Bush Administration engaged in torture have caused newspapers like The New York Times to seek out characterizations that permit them to remain neutral players in the controversy.
On Tuesday, the notion that the Bush Administration didn't torture, and the notion that it is appropriate for media organizations to remain neutral on that question, suffered what should be a fatal blow.
The Task Force on Detainee Treatment, a bipartisan commission convened by the Constitution Project, has just released a comprehensive investigative report on "detainee treatment," stating in plain, certain terms that torture was perpetrated. The 576-page report begins with a plainspoken introductory statement summarizing its findings. Only two passages are boldfaced. "Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel," it states, "is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture." And "the second notable conclusion of the Task Force is that the nation's highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture."
These conclusions aren't novel or groundbreaking.
Human-rights groups, legal observers, and journalists, among many others, have long chronicled the brutal torture perpetrated as a direct result of specific Bush Administration decisions.
Their careful findings have been correct, and the dearth of attention they've received is shameful. The Detainee Task Force report is nevertheless noteworthy. Its findings, based on a thorough two-year investigation, are endorsed by members in good standing of the U.S. establishment. Americans who've studied the facts have long known that Team Bush tortured. Now people who require bipartisan consensus from D.C. elder statesmen to accept a conclusion can stop regarding the torture question as unsettled and confront the fact that torture happened. It happened on George W. Bush's watch, and "high officials" were partly responsible for it. Lots of people broke the law, since torture is illegal, and haven't ever been punished.
So say the elder statesmen.
They include Asa Hutchinson, who served in the Bush Administration as a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary from 2003 to 2005, and as the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration before that; James R. Jones, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and a Democratic member of the House of Representatives for seven terms; Talbot D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association; legal scholar Richard Epstein; David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics; David Irvine, a former Republican state legislator and retired brigadier general; Claudia Kennedy, "the first woman to receive the rank of three-star general in the United States army"; naval veteran and career diplomat Thomas Pickering; William Sessions, director of the FBI in three presidential administrations; and others.
They all agree that Team Bush tortured people.
In fact, their conclusion about illegal torture is stated in language so powerful and uncompromising that it must be quoted directly to avoid the risk of understating their vehemence.
The United States engaged in torture, they wrote, adding that:
This finding, offered without reservation, is not based on any impressionistic approach to the issue. No member of the Task Force made this decision because the techniques "seemed like torture to me," or "I would regard that as torture." Instead, this conclusion is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notably historical and legal. The Task Force examined court cases in which torture was deemed to have occurred both inside and outside the country and, tellingly, in instances in which the United States has leveled the charge of torture against other governments.
The United States may not declare a nation guilty of engaging in torture and then exempt itself from being so labeled for similar if not identical conduct. It should be noted that the conclusion that torture was used means it occurred in many instances and across a wide range of theaters. This judgment is not restricted to or dependent on the three cases in which detainees of the CIA were subjected to waterboarding, which had been approved at the highest levels.
Noting conventions that prevent most journalists from endorsing a conclusion so sweeping, the report notes that "the public may simply perceive that there is no right side, as there are two equally fervent views held on a subject, with substantially credentialed people on both sides." It nevertheless concludes that "the members, coming from a wide political spectrum, believe that the arguments that the nation did not engage in torture and that much of what occurred should be defined as something less than torture are not credible." Bush defenders on this subject are simply wrong.