Frustrated at being unable to crack some of the Guantanamo detainees, the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 began a re-examination of the legal restraints on the use of torture.
The result was a series of memos culminating in a report that, according to excerpts leaked to the press, came to the startling and appalling conclusion that President Bush isn't bound by U.S. laws, military doctrine, international treaties and the Constitution that prohibit the use of torture.
Drawn up largely by the Justice Department and civilian lawyers at the Pentagon, the report concluded that the president has a free hand in ordering the torture of prisoners and those who carry it out, in defiance of express U.S. law, cannot be prosecuted.
This new, national black eye cries out for congressional investigation, but if the administration has its way Congress won't get one. And, by extension, the American public won't learn exactly what it is the administration is doing in its name.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked the administration's usual "trust us" defense. He told the committee that the administration doesn't condone torture but that Congress can't see the memos that justify its use.
This current controversy over the treatment of detainees has nothing to do with the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, but it hardly helps our standing in the world that the U.S. government, while publicly pledging to abide by the spirit of the Geneva Convention, was privately plotting ways to evade the treaty against torture.
The final report, based on the memos, reportedly identifies 24 interrogation techniques — four requiring authorization from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — that the authors believed fell short of actual torture and more into the category of rough treatment. These include cold, indifferent food; leaving the prisoners naked; sleep deprivation; shackling in uncomfortable positions; and various forms of psychological stress.
It is disturbing that the top echelons of the Bush administration feel there are no restraints, Congress and the uniformed military notwithstanding, on how this president chooses to fight a war.
There is no evidence that U.S. interrogators — and one hopes that there won't be any — have gone from rough treatment to true torture, true torture being defined in an excerpt published by The Washington Post as "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying severe physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."
And this is the week we will bury a former president who liked to think of the United States as a city shining on a hill, a beacon to all mankind.