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Torture is in the eye of the beholder

Christie Pesavento | Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Justice Department recently released four memos detailing the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA on senior Al Qaeda operatives under the Bush administration.

The tactics employed have been described as “brutal,” “harsh,” “shocking,” “disturbing,” “barbaric” and just about every other synonym in the book.

Despite President Obama’s high-minded claim of acting in the name of truth and transparency, it should be abundantly clear to any non-Obamaniac that the decision to release these memos was politically-motivated. Facing a flurry of criticism on everything from the economy to his Worldwide Apology Tour, Obama hoped to shift attention to everyone’s favorite target: George W. Bush.

And while liberals howl in sanctimonious outrage and our enemies overseas gleefully add new weapons to their propaganda arsenals, just what has the release of these memos really accomplished?

According to Obama, “exceptional circumstances” called for the release of the memos.

Just what sort of “exceptional circumstances” are you referring to, Mr. President?

His response: “Withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.”

Well I sure am glad we now have more evidence to prove what we already knew. Needlessly reopening old wounds when most Americans would just like to move on and tackle more pressing issues, like the abysmal state of the economy, is obviously warranted despite the potential risks entailed, including jeopardizing our national security, a charge leveled by five former directors of the CIA.

Incidentally, a number of other high-ranking officials have severely questioned Obama’s decision.

“I cannot think of a rational public policy consideration for releasing these,” says Dan Bartlett, former counsel to the White House.

“The release of these opinions was unnecessary as a legal matter, and is unsound as a matter of policy,” writes former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. “Its effect will be to invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial points out that the administration has effectively bound its own hands, and the hands of all future administrations, in using these coercive measures against high-level, captured terrorists (I apologize, I meant instigators of “man-caused disasters”) to gather intelligence enabling our troops to effectively execute the “Overseas contingency operation” (formerly known as the War on Terror) and save innocent lives. Never mind the fact that gathering accurate and timely intelligence is crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, as we learned the hard way on September 11.

Those who claim that these techniques are already prohibited would do well to recall that Obama merely suspended their use until further investigation could be performed by a task force, as the editorial states. Now that they have been released, there would be little reason to authorize methods that are known to the enemy.

One possible silver lining in this debacle is that the administration’s desire to incite further outrage could potentially backfire, as the American people now have a chance to judge for themselves whether these the tactics used constitute the label of “torture.”

So what methods did the Office of Legal Counsel authorize in the memos?

Well for starters, there is waterboarding, which as most of us know involves binding a prisoner to an inclined board, wrapping his face in cellophane, and pouring water over him in order to simulate drowning. No surprises there.

There is also forced nudity. Embarrassing and awkward, perhaps, but it doesn’t amount to torture.

Shoving prisoners into a wall. My friends and I used to do that to one another all the time while walking down the hallways in high school.

Slapping prisoners in the face and stomach. Putting prisoners in stress positions and confining them in boxes. Dousing them with cold water. Again, hardly the equivalent of torture.

Prolonged sleep deprivation. Using this logic, our professors should face criminal charges for forcing students to pull multiple all-nighters during finals week studying for tests and writing papers.

Placing a prisoner inside a box containing a caterpillar to exploit his fear of insects. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a harmless caterpillar was used to “torture” a prisoner. What kind of sadistic monster would employ such cruel, grisly measures to save the lives of innocent Americans?

What’s more, the interrogations were “continuously monitored” and “the interrogation team will stop the use of particular techniques or the interrogation altogether if the detainee’s medical or psychological conditions indicates that the detainee might suffer significant physical or mental harm.” The CIA has also tested these methods on service members in order to ensure that no long-term physical or psychological pain would result.

To be sure, enduring such treatment would be far from pleasant. However, classifying the tactics as “torture” is a substantial exaggeration. We must remember that in the wake of September 11, President Bush was under extreme pressure to ensure that Americans were no longer vulnerable to similar, or even worse, attacks. Thank goodness we had a man in the White House who had the courage to put national security concerns ahead of political ones.

Too bad the same cannot be said of its current occupant.

Christie Pesavento is currently classified as a “right wing extremist” according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necesarily those of The Observer.