In today’s Wall Street Journal David Rivkin and Lee Casey — who have made something of a cottage industry out of defending the worst actions of the Bush administration — argue that the OLC torture memos released last week by the Obama administration “prove” that the Bush administration did not torture detainees. “Far from ‘green lighting’ torture…the memos detail the actual techniques used and the many measures taken to ensure that interrogations did not cause severe pain or degradation,” they write.
To support their argument, Rivkin and Casey claim that the memos show that the Bush administration made use of waterboarding only on a very limited and controlled basis. The tactics were “harsh,” they acknowledge, but “fall well short of torture.” Anyone claiming otherwise is exaggerating as a result of what they call “speculative rage”:
The memos are also revealing about the practice of “waterboarding,” about which there has been so much speculative rage from the program’s opponents. The practice, used on only three individuals, involved covering the nose and mouth with a cloth and pouring water over the cloth to create a drowning sensation.
This technique could be used for up to 40 seconds — although the CIA orally informed Justice Department lawyers that it would likely not be used for more than 20 seconds at a time. Unlike the exaggerated claims of so many Bush critics, the memos make clear that water was not actually expected to enter the detainee’s lungs, and that measures were put in place to prevent complications if this did happen and to ensure that the individual did not develop respiratory distress.
But as Marcy Wheeler first noted and the New York Times reports today, the OLC memos actually “prove” that waterboarding was used far more often than Rivkin and Casey acknowledge and far more often than the Bush administration previously admitted. Indeed, waterboarding was used “at least 83 times in August 2002 against Abu Zubaydah” and “183 times in March 2003 against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.”
Rivkin and Casey’s defense of waterboarding is puzzling given Rivkin’s recent remarks about the torture technique. In a December 2008 appearance on Al Jazeera English, Rivkin stated emphatically that torture is “always unacceptable” and that in his view “waterboarding is torture“:
RIVKIN: Let me clarify, torture in my view is always unacceptable, and in fact I frankly think characterizing American interrogation policy, or debates about interrogation policy, as torture is misleading. … Torture is defined somewhat imprecisely in international law, but basically, in my view, waterboarding is torture.