Torture Memos

Today at 5 pm EST and 2 pm PST/FDL time, I will be hosting Professor David Cole at FDL for a Book Salon discussion of his new compilation of the Bush Administration torture memos. Here is the quick blurb on the book:

On April 16, 2009, the Justice Department released never-before-seen secret memos describing, in graphic detail, the brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA under the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Now, for the first time, the key documents are compiled in one remarkable volume, showing that the United States government’s top attorneys were instrumental in rationalizing acts of torture and cruelty, employing chillingly twisted logic and Orwellian reasoning to authorize what the law absolutely forbids.

This collection gives readers an unfiltered look at the tactics approved for use in the CIA’s secret overseas prisons–including forcing detainees to stay awake for eleven days straight, slamming them against walls, stripping them naked, locking them in a small box with insects to manipulate their fears, and, of course, waterboarding–and at the incredible arguments advanced to give them a green light.

Originally issued in secret by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005, the documents collected here have been edited only to eliminate repetition. They reflect, in their own words, the analysis that guided the legal architects of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies.

Renowned legal scholar David Cole’s introductory essay tells the story behind the memos, and presents a compelling case that instead of demanding that the CIA conform its conduct to the law, the nation’s top lawyers contorted the law to conform to the CIA’s abusive and patently illegal conduct. He argues eloquently that official accountability for these legal wrongs is essential if the United States is to restore fidelity to the rule of law.

David Cole is a professor of law at Georgetown University, legal affairs correspondent for The Nation, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and author of the American Book Award-winning Enemy Aliens. He lives in Washington, D.C. (

I hope all of you will join me, there will be a full two hours we have with Professor Cole and it will be a fantastic forum for discussion. So be thinking of your questions and discussion points. If you cannot attend, use this thread to leave questions and I and/or another regular here will try to get them portaged over to book salon and asked.

31 replies
  1. skdadl says:

    It should indeed be a fantastic discussion, and I will try to be there as a reader. Thanks to you and FDL for arranging this session, bmaz.

    But you can put this question better than I can, so could you keep it back of mind? What does Professor Cole think of the rumours we’ve heard about the (now almost mythical) OPR report, that it advises censure of Bybee and Yoo but not Bradbury, given the evidence we’ve seen of Bradbury’s work and what can be reconstructed of the role he played?

    • bmaz says:

      Hey skdadl, Cole is really nice, be there as a participant, not just a reader. These Book Salon forums are for everybody, not just folks like me and Marcy. In fact, they are designed to give ALL our readers and commenters a chance to interact directly with the authors; this is for you – don’t be shy!

  2. bmaz says:

    Thanks Jeff, I dunno about the quality of the host, but I am hoping that you and all of our regulars that have been so deep into torture show up and go to town. Professor Cole is a really nice guy and he is way deep in these weeds, he will be a fantastic source for discussion.

  3. JasonLeopold says:

    really looking forward to this. thanks for posting the reminder. Hope everyone here has been doing well.

  4. tejanarusa says:

    bmaz – OT, please forgive me, but – have you seen this? I didn’t even know this horror was happening.
    Have to put it on the list of good-things-done-by-the-Obama-admin. altho’ if it were me, I wouldn’t bother reviewing it, I’d just cancel the policy. And of course,t he provision in the law should be repealed, but that would probably trigger a filibuster.

    Re: the Torture Memos – saw the book in the store the other day – not sure if I’ll still be here – my schedule is thrown way off today by life, as we say, but sure sounds interesting. If depressing.

  5. Mary says:

    I’m very bummed. I have to leave here in about 1/2 hour and will miss this – probably won’t be able to get back to it until up in the evening. :(

    On the question front – if it looks like there’s time for him – I’d be happy if any of the below got asked:

    1. Should Congress consider legislation to update the current statute re establishment of the OLC and which would prohibit any claim of good faith reliance on a non-public opinion issued by OLC (or the AG)? If not, is there a way to circumvent the approach of OLC and the Exec branch operating to generate “secret law” which does a complete end run around Congress and the courts and is forever subject to repetition without review?

    2. Is it worthwhile to even discuss whether or not Congress should or shouldn’t consider legislation, since the blatant violations of legislation have been met over and over by Congressional inaction? IOW, does it matter what legislation we have if Congress abandons its role as a check?

    3. From the January 2002 Gonzales memo, discussing that “but-for” the use of the unlawful enemy combatants label what the administration was contemplating would be war crimes under the War Crimes Act, if not before, there has been a constant presence of the issue of litigation surrounding the actions being undertaken by the Executive branch. Given the WHC saying in Jan of 2002 there was possible future litigation involving the admin’s actions and the War Crimes Act, what were the professional duties of the lawyers with knowledge of those actions vis a vis directives to the agencies and individuals involved to keep emails and documents and not destroy evidence?

    And if not in connection with that memo, then in connection with any number of incidents, from the issues Padilla’s counsel raised in connection with the FBI affidavits for the material witness affidavit to the Maher Arar case to the el-Masri case to the numerous habeas cases to the defenses raised by soldiers in the Abu Ghraib cases to the issues raised by Taguba vis a vis military intelligence abuses, etc. – What were the duties of lawyers in such litigation postures in respect of preserving evidence and what could or should be the reprucussions given that the OPR investigation is not going to touch on those issues?

    4. We now have released documentation supporting the story that injury to someone’s children, children in the constructive or actual possession of the US, was threatened in conjunction with the program. Given that, and given all the stories elsewhere about them, can you account for why no one has ever asked Bush or Obama to account for US actions with respect to KSM’s children, or for Bush or Obama to account for what US agencies did with those children?

    Yikes – running out of time and have to get barn dirt out from under my fingernails – I’ll be sorry to miss and I know that it’s going to be well worth reading when I get back – thanks for hosting bmaz and extra special thanks for the reminder here.

    • JasonLeopold says:

      Hi Mary,
      I asked Prof. Cole your first two questions and here is his response:

      Great questions! I think there ought to be a very strong presumption that OLC memos be public, particularly where they effectively have the force of law, but there would have to be a fairly broad exception for covert operations, deliberative process, etc., and those exceptions surely would have been invoked in this case. So I’m not sure it’s really the answer.

      One institutional reform that would be worth considering is requiring more input from or outreach to interested agencies by OLC. Had the OLC process considered the views of the General Counsels of the military, for example, or from the State Department, I doubt it could have adopted the same interpretations. But the journalistic reports we have suggest that in this instance OLC iced out anyone who might object.

      Another reform might be to appoint someone in OLC to be responsible for advocating for individual and human rights. There is such an office in DHS. I think given the absence of an adversarial public process, one check might be to assign someone that role. That would certainly affect the debate, and would in all likelihood affect outcomes as well. At this point, no one really speaks for “the people” in OLC. They speak instead for the government.

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      We missed you there, Mary, though bmaz did a good job of bringing us your voice. Still, there’s nothing like being present. Unfortunately, Prof. Cole didn’t comment on your question about children (unless I missed it somehow).

      • Jim White says:

        Yes, we still have a big 0 for all the guests we have asked about the children. That question will still be asked by many of us until we get an answer. Off the top of my head, I remember that we have asked Ridge, Whitehouse and even Sands. The Sands non-response was the most surprising to me.

        • phred says:

          I was wondering about that. I read through the thread and was surprised to see yet another non-response. Not even so much as “I don’t know, but we should find out”. It’s been dead silence. What’s that about?

          • bmaz says:

            I think people, even those that plumb the depths of torture, have limits to where they want to go. There is no good answer, so there is just no answer.

            • Boston1775 says:

              I have again and again called attention to the abuse and torture of children (these happened to be from Michigan and Arizona) by the CIA. I have linked to the videos of the testimony of their therapist and the young women themselves who had the courage to appear before a committee hearing during the Clinton administration.

              I have linked to a book by a woman who was tortured and trained by the CIA to do their bidding. She was desperately trying to save her daughter from the same thing, yet no one comments.

              I have firsthand experience with some of the institutions and doctors themselves who were identified as doing “research” for the CIA. The CIA was doing “research” in programs such as MKULTRA while my loved one had mental health needs. Her brain, her personality, her potential were unalterably damaged.

              When I seek to point out the link between what is being done out there to what is happening to our very own citizens, I rarely feel I’ve connected. Maybe it’s too difficult to believe that our government has and is experimenting on people, driving them to their limits and beyond. But they are doing that very thing.

              My life has been informed by the tragedy.

  6. kbskiff says:

    Excuse my ignorance but at 5 pm if I go to Book Salon at FDL will the website have a link to the discussion o

  7. 1boringoldman says:

    Professor Cole provided us with a great Salon [I expect there more than just me who ordered his book]. Thanks bmaz…

  8. Boston1775 says:

    Thanks, bmaz,
    A great salon.
    David Cole and the rest of the ranks
    are heroes.
    And the traumatizing goes on….

  9. NMvoiceofreason says:

    First of all, given the separation of powers doctrine; that only Congress can pass laws; that only the Executive administers the law; and that only the Courts can interpret the law: Can the OLC exist, when it’s very purpose is unconstitutional?

    Second, given the OLC’s participation in criminal conspiracies (50 USC 1809 FISA, 18 USC 2340a Torture), which is CLEARLY ultra vires, beyond the scope of any authority ever given to the government, and given the mandatory requirement of prosecution in the Geneva Conventions (signed and ratified law under the Supremacy clause), isn’t it a violation of Mr.Holder’s oath of office and gross dereliction of duty not to prosecute those responsible, especially given the precedent of United States of America v. Josef Aitstoetter et al. (1947).?

  10. perris says:

    hey guys, I know this is late and possibly nobody will see it but there’s an interesting development just up your alley reported at raw story

    after a state-funded report revealed in August that Texas may have executed an innocent man under the watch of Governor Rick Perry, the Texas Republican currently facing a steep re-election climb was quick to act in his own best interest.

    He replaced three members on the key committee charged with investigating the report’s truth, installing what CNN called a “political ally” to head up the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

    daylight must be shed here, he’s “pullin a palin” and investigating his own depravity

  11. WilliamOckham says:

    Boy, I’m bummed that I missed this (although I had a good reason). I’ll have to read the conversation at some point.

  12. Mary says:

    Nice job on the Cole post and thread – it was a worthwhile read!

    Perris, I’m not as concerned about the non-answers bc a lot of people won’t have any answers. The important thing is that lots of different people in differnt kinds of bubbles (or not) all are faced with the questions being asked. People, including Obama, are still basically ducking any real answer to the “what is the mission in Afghanistan” question, but at least the question has now begun to be asked by the mainstream.

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