Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Daphne Eviatar has been going over the newly released torture memos and noticed something very interesting: The administration’s legal arguments didn’t change at all from the first set of memos, written in 2002 and 2003, to the second set of memos, written in 2006 and 2007. Why is that a problem? Well, the legal environment actually changed greatly in between those two sets of memos. Daphne explains:

The Office of Legal Counsel is where John Yoo and Jay Bybee, beginning in 2002, wrote a series of what came to be called the “torture memos,” defining torture so narrowly and the law so permissively that near-drowning, prolonged sleep deprivation, stress positions and many more “enhanced interrogation techniques” were deemed legal. Yoo also concluded that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to certain executive action during wartime, even in the United States.

The more recent documents, written by Steven Bradbury, who became acting assistant attorney general and head of the OLC in 2005, were the Justice Department’s attempts to deal with the ways the law had changed in the intervening years – and the clarifications from the Supreme Court that certain basic international laws, like portions of the Geneva Conventions, do apply to terror suspects held abroad.

What experts say is surprising about the 2006 and 2007 memos released on Monday, however, is how little the legal analysis changed, despite the new legal backdrop that had emerged, and how selectively the lawyers chose which laws and cases to apply.

In 2005, after photographs surfaced showing U.S. troops abusing Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act specifically to outlaw the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of detainees that was plain for all to see. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to “war on terror” detainees. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had famously called the Geneva Conventions a “quaint” relic of the past.

But the CIA still wanted to use many of the controversial interrogation techniques it had adopted, based in part on the advice of two psychologists and businessmen with no interrogation experience. In particular, as is set forth in the recently released Office of Legal Counsel memos, the CIA still wanted to use six techniques, including prolonged sleep deprivation, food deprivation, shackling, forced standing in stress positions, and a variety of “corrective techniques” that include physical slaps and grabs – all of which would be used alone, or in combination.

Despite the intervening change in the legal landscape, legal experts who have reviewed the memos say that strangely, the analysis remained essentially the same.

“It’s surprising how little the analysis in this memo changed from the past memos, notwithstanding the passage of the [Detainee Treatment Act] and the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan,” said American Civil Liberties Union national security project lawyer Alex Abdo.

The July 2007 opinion, for example, analyzed whether prolonged sleep deprivation for up to 96 straight hours (or 180 hours in a 30-day period) while a prisoner is forced to stand, shackled, in diapers, and eventually in his own urine and feces violates the Detainee Treatment Act and Geneva Conventions’ prohibitions on “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.

The Justice Department lawyers concluded that it does not violate either law, even if the sleep deprivation is combined with restriction to a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet (half the recommended daily human intake) of liquid formula, and with “corrective techniques” such as the “facial hold,” “facial slap,” and “abdominal slap”.

The rules are not violated because the CIA has determined that such techniques are “safe”, concludes the memo, meaning they cause no “serious,” permanent or long-lasting injury.

In 2002 and 2003, the OLC said the president could do anything he wanted, essentially, because the Geneva conventions did not apply to the detainees being held. So the Supreme Court rules that those conventions do apply to them and Congress specifically forbids all “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees. And magically, the OLC said that didn’t change a thing.

That’s about equal parts convenient, ridiculous and unsurprising.