No Comment — April 15, 2009, 9:28 am

Obama Wavering on Torture

Evan Perez and Siobhan Gorman at the Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is leaning toward keeping secret some graphic details of tactics allowed in Central Intelligence Agency interrogations, despite a push by some top officials to make the information public, according to people familiar with the discussions. These people cautioned that President Barack Obama is still reviewing internal arguments over the release of Justice Department memorandums related to CIA interrogations, and how much information will be made public is in flux.

Among the details in the still-classified memos is approval for a technique in which a prisoner’s head could be struck against a wall as long as the head was being held and the force of the blow was controlled by the interrogator, according to people familiar with the memos. Another approved tactic was waterboarding, or simulated drowning.

“Some graphic details?” Perhaps they’re thinking about this, a cross-verified account taken from the February 2007 Red Cross study of practices at the CIA black sites:

After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

There’s nothing particularly shocking about these techniques. After all, the Soviet NKVD and its successor organizations and the German Gestapo used almost identical methods for decades. They belong to the standard repertoire of brutal, totalitarian regimes and war criminals. The Journal report follows in the wake of Michael Isikoff’s report of twelve days ago. The Obama Administration had previously committed to publishing the memos and requested an extension to Thursday, April 16. What’s the source of the pushback?

Top CIA officials and some in the White House argue that disclosing such secrets will undermine the agency’s credibility with foreign intelligence services. They also say revealing operational details will embroil officers in probes of activities that were cleared by Justice Department lawyers at the time.

John Sifton, in two pieces at the Daily Beast, identified the CIA players who are the source of the objections—former director Michael Hayden; the agency’s no. 2, Stephen Kappes; Michael Sulick, the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service; and let’s not forget John O. Brennan, former CIA Director George Tenet’s deputy, now an Obama advisor in the White House. Why are they so concerned? They guided the use of torture techniques or are very close to those who did, and they would likely be in the crosshairs of any investigation, potentially including criminal accountability. Indeed, the CIA’s own internal police dog, Inspector General John L. Helgerson, found serious wrongdoing and was promptly neutered—with Dick Cheney stepping in personally to ensure his silence.

The question that Obama faces is simple: does he have the courage of his convictions? Will he fulfill his commitment to transparency as well as his commitment to end torture?

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More from Scott Horton:

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Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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