No Comment — November 6, 2007, 1:16 am

The Justice Department’s Culture of Torture

On Friday, Nov. 2, ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson carried a story with a series of stunning accusations. Jan Crawford Greenburg provided a report that cleared up a long-standing mystery: why did Daniel Levin, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel who authored the second in the Justice Department’s series of highly controversial “torture memoranda,” suddenly depart his post? The story that unfolded was grotesque, almost impossible to believe. I have been a critic of the Bush Justice Department for some time, but this story even I was reluctant to believe. So I waited, expecting that the Justice Department would denounce ABC’s report as some sort of hoax or falsehood. In the intervening four days, however, the Justice Department has maintained a steady silence on the story which can be explained only one way: the story is true.

A senior Justice Department official, charged with reworking the administration’s legal position on torture in 2004 became so concerned about the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding that he decided to experience it firsthand, sources told ABC News. Daniel Levin, then acting assistant attorney general, went to a military base near Washington and underwent the procedure to inform his analysis of different interrogation techniques.

After the experience, Levin told White House officials that even though he knew he wouldn’t die, he found the experience terrifying and thought that it clearly simulated drowning. Levin, who refused to comment for this story, concluded waterboarding could be illegal torture unless performed in a highly limited way and with close supervision. And, sources told ABC News, he believed the Bush Administration had failed to offer clear guidelines for its use.

waterboarding-definition-wikipedia24dec05a

Daniel Levin is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican. Now, recall Michael Mukasey’s suggestion that he didn’t know what waterboarding was. Levin took a logical approach: he decided to experience it firsthand. And he came to a conclusion that, in my mind, shows unacceptable flexibility in accepting the technique. But how did the Bush White House react to this? It was swift and simple: Levin was forced out of office.

When Levin took over from Goldsmith, he went to work on a memo that would effectively replace the Bybee memo as the administration’s legal position on torture. It was during this time that he underwent waterboarding. In December 2004, Levin released the new memo. He said, “Torture is abhorrent” but he went on to say in a footnote that the memo was not declaring the administration’s previous opinions illegal. The White House, with Alberto Gonzales as the White House counsel, insisted that this footnote be included in the memo.

But Levin never finished a second memo imposing tighter controls on the specific interrogation techniques. Sources said he was forced out of the Justice Department when Gonzales became attorney general.

The Bush Administration’s swift reaction: any deviation from the torture litmus test results in dismissal.

The matter raises some more very unpleasant questions. Levin was trying to impose some guidelines on the use of waterboarding as a technique. The purpose of the guidelines was to preserve some very questionable basis to argue that the practice was not torture. So why did the administration put a stop to that? I can see one explanation: they wanted complete flexibility. That means that they contemplated practices that would venture into the most extreme, cruel and horrible treatment. No limitations–let the torturer have at it.

Note that Alberto Gonzales insisted on the inclusion of an infamous footnote which stated that, notwithstanding the different analysis, it was not overturning the advice given by the Yoo/Bybee torture memorandum. Although Levin grudgingly included this, that was not enough to save his job. Why did the administration insist on this footnote? Because people had in fact been waterboarded, and this occurred with the authority of some of the seniormost officials of the Administration: Cheney, Addington, Gonzales, and Rumsfeld, for instance. Without this, the door would be open for their criminal prosecution. Senior officials of the Administration were manipulating the issuance of opinions in the Justice Department to shield themselves from criminal prosecution.

This incident dramatically demonstrates the fixation that Gonzales and Cheney’s team in particular have with the torture issue, including waterboarding. Their fixation has nothing to do with the camouflage they generally put up about torture allowing the nation to defuse nuclear bombs like Jack Bauer in “24.” It is directly tied to their own perception that they are guilty of criminal conduct and their determination to abuse the powers of Government to block any effort to prosecute them.

Waterboarding is torture. It has been understood to be torture since the sixteenth century. Waterboarding was used to torture Black slaves in America before the Civil War. American prosecutors have indicted and tried criminal defendants for torture in connection with the use of waterboarding—bringing and succeeding in cases against both Americans and others. Judge Wallach’s excellent law review article, “Drop by Drop,” covers this well-documented history which the Administration insists that all its lawyers forget. Wallach’s op-ed summarizing his conclusions can be found here.

There is no serious or competent basis upon which waterboarding can be claimed to be legal. The persistence of these bogus arguments is just more evidence of the deterioration of public discourse. Our habit as a nation has always been to accept anything that our political leadership states as a respectable contention, even if worthy of criticism. But with the arrival of the Bush Administration this has become an extremely dangerous premise. There is no respectable opinion that can hold waterboarding legal. It is criminal depravity. When we allow its justification as an article of polite conversation, we deal our society and its values a potentially mortal wound.

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” George Orwell reminded us in “Politics and the English Language.” In the waterboarding debate, Orwell’s warning has found its most literal application.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson

Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:

6,000

An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today