One objective of the Bush Administration's modified limited hangout on the Torture Memos and the accompanying partial data dump, has been to sell the voter, and the chattering classes, the story that while some lower-down officials were having philosophical discussions about torture, none of this was ever reflected in the actual orders given by higher ups.
There are a large number of reasons to be more than a little wary about this spin on the story.
First, there are the obvious gaps in the story provided by the Administration — less and less information about the orders given by higher-ups as we get closer to the present day, the period in which administration desperation about events in Iraq could only have increased.
Second, there is the absence of any information about the instructions to the CIA at any time.
Third, there is the bureaucratic reality that the vast number of memos and working groups were not the result of spontaneous organizational combustion. People very close to the top asked for those. We know Rumsfeld and Gonzales did; we don't know how much they consulted with their boss, and he's having memory problems on the subject of torture.
Fourth, we know that the proponents of torture were not just philosophizing, or casting about for policy options, or presenting balanced options to their bosses, but rather were so intent on getting their way that they ruthlessly cut their bureaucratic opponents out of the loop.
According to today's Washington Post, in January 2002, the State Department Legal Advisor — one of the higher ranking lawyers in government, and traditionally an authoritative interpreter of existing treaties within the executive branch — opined that the Justice Department approach to the torture issue and to the Geneva Conventions was
“seriously flawed” and its reasoning was “incorrect as well as incomplete.” Justice's arguments were “contrary to the official position of the United States, the United Nations and all other states that have considered the issue,” Taft said.
That letter somehow didn't get into this week's data dump. Nor did the reaction from Justice and Defense: they started trying to exclude the weak-livered folk from State from meeetings.
One result of the rancorous debate, according to participants, was that Yoo, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and senior civilians at the Pentagon no longer sought to include the State Department or the Joint Staff in deliberations about the precise protections afforded to detainees by the Geneva Conventions.
For example, the officials said, a 50-page Justice Department memo in August 2002 about the meaning of various anti-torture laws and treaties was not discussed or shared with the Joint Chiefs or the State Department. It was drafted by Justice for the CIA and sent directly to the White House.
(I happened to be talking to a mid-level foreign service officer, who is not a lawyer, last week and he expressed his disgust that the US government had, for the first time, interpreted treaties without even consulting the state department.)
These actions are consistent with a picture of an administration that sought a way to use, and intended to use, violence to question people. It is not airtight proof, and one hopes they pulled back from the brink…but at the very least there are many questions left to answered.