"The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting-type music was constantly playing.... One of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face.... I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours.... It was difficult to breathe.... I had to crouch down.... The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed.... I may have slept or maybe fainted. I was then dragged from the small box ... and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators [poured] water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position.... I vomited. The same torture [was] carried out again.... I thought I was going to die."
These chilling excerpts only begin to sketch the horrors described in a leaked copy of a report to the CIA by the International Committee of the Red Cross, detailing its interviews with Abu Zubaydah (who is quoted above) and 13 other Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in late 2006 about their interrogations in secret CIA prisons starting in 2002.
Laid out last month by journalist Mark Danner in a 13,000-word New York Review of Books article, the interviews paint an even uglier picture than I had imagined of the months of multiple, unrelenting torments that the CIA used to break "high-value" Qaeda detainees. Some of these CIA practices have become familiar. Others are detailed for the first time in the Red Cross report: smashing defenseless men against hard walls over and over again; forcing them to stand naked and cold with arms shackled over their heads for days at a time while urinating and defecating on themselves; and more.
Why am I inclined to believe what terrorists, trained by Al Qaeda to fabricate torture claims, told the Red Cross? One reason is that these men were held in strict isolation and "the striking similarity in their stories, even down to small details, would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely," as Danner writes. Another reason is that their stories are substantially corroborated by multiple media interviews of U.S. officials and by a source who has no motive to mislead me.
All of this makes it hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the CIA -- with Justice Department assurances of legality and high-level White House approvals -- repeatedly crossed the line from harsh treatment into what was, by any reasonable definition, illegal torture.
It also argues strongly that President Obama and Congress, understandably preoccupied with averting another Great Depression, must also focus harder on the need to come to terms with the abuses done in America's name by a Bush team that was understandably preoccupied with averting a nuclear or biological 9/11.
But first, the Obama administration needs to slap down an insult to U.S. sovereignty now brewing in the Spanish courts.
It began with a complaint by "human-rights" lawyers, including one Gonzalo Boye -- who served time for his role in a left-wing terrorist group's 1988 abduction of a Spanish businessman for ransom -- against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five other Bush administration lawyers who vouched for the legality of various harsh interrogation practices.
Last week it was reported that Baltasar Garzon, a much-lionized but flamboyantly biased Spanish judge with a grandiose vision of his own "universal jurisdiction," had sent the matter to prosecutors for review. This was a step toward embarking on an inquisition into America's sins. Garzon's ultimate objective may well be to charge officials up to and including President Bush and Vice President Cheney with war crimes and thus to embarrass the United States -- which, he knows, would never extradite any of his targets to face his kangaroo court.
"For Garzon to second-guess U.S. decisions in this area amounts to a violation of international law and an affront to U.S. sovereignty by Spain," David Rivkin, a conservative expert on the universal jurisdiction doctrine, asserts.
By Garzon's tortured logic, isn't Obama also committing war crimes by ordering Predator strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan?
Garzon's record invites the inference that he may also see Obama as a war criminal, if one whose rock-star status across Europe may immunize him for now. Soon after 9/11, Garzon published in El Pais and the Financial Times a commentary denouncing "the bellicose plans proclaimed repeatedly by U.S. leaders." He suggested that "justice ... should be brought to bear" on Bush, among others, for spreading "panic among the Afghan people" and setting the stage for "a human catastrophe" in their country by planning to attack suspected terrorists there. By that tortured logic, isn't Obama also committing war crimes by ordering Predator strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan?
It's noteworthy that Garzon's past targets have included such people as Augusto Pinochet, Henry Kissinger, Silvio Berlusconi -- and not, say, Vladimir Putin, who has presided over massive war crimes in Chechnya, or Syrian leaders who have done the same there and in Lebanon.
But Garzon's affront may serve as a reminder that the U.S. needs to take serious steps to show reasonable critics at home and abroad that we are not going to sweep the evidence of Bush administration torture under the rug.
This is not necessarily to suggest that Bush, his appointees, or other U.S. officials should be prosecuted. Most or all would have a valid defense of good-faith reliance on then-authoritative -- although erroneous and now-repudiated -- legal advice from the Justice Department. And the lawyers who gave the advice were writing memos, not supervising interrogations.
But the Obama administration's prosecutors should nonetheless conduct a serious investigation into whether any officials knew that anything they did or approved was illegal, and, if so, whether prosecuting them for trying too hard to save innocent lives is warranted and likely to be successful.
We also need a thorough, credible public accounting of the ugly details of the "enhanced" interrogations; of exactly who approved what; and of the plausibility of the Bush-Cheney-CIA claims that the information obtained saved innocent lives. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., aptly identified what the objective should be: "I don't want to embarrass anybody. I don't want to punish anybody. I just want the truth to come out so this never happens again."
But the sort of "truth commission" that Leahy and many others (including me, at one point) have proposed could degenerate into a bitter partisan brawl, as could any investigation conducted by politically appointed commissioners in the glare of nationally televised hearings.
Avenging human-rights groups would push commissioners to tee up witnesses for prosecution. Most or all witnesses would incur burdensome legal fees and take the Fifth. Grants of immunity to force them to testify would be bitterly resisted by the avengers and, coming from a committee outside the legislative and executive branches, constitutionally problematic. The CIA's institutional reflex would be to resist declassifying critical documents. And so on.
What we need is not a public circus but rather a definitive public report documenting and drawing lessons from the Bush interrogation abuses.
The best approach might be for the Senate Select Intelligence Committee to beef up the review of the CIA's detention and interrogation program that it announced on March 5. Among the advantages: The committee, like its House counterpart, has unparalleled access to the classified CIA documents that tell much of the story. Congress's Democratic majority has no reason to cover up for the Bush team and has ample reason to avoid exposing career CIA public servants to public vilification that could chill their zeal to pursue terrorists.
But the investigation as constituted at present has problems: The committee has not yet decided to produce a public report at all, let alone one thorough and unvarnished enough to command respect at home and abroad. The panel does not speak for Obama, and it has a reputation for coziness with the CIA. Committee members who were briefed on brutal interrogation practices would, to some extent, be investigating themselves. And the Democrats might be tempted to score partisan points.
A single decisive step could solve all five problems: The committee should bring in an outsider of unquestioned stature, with Obama's public blessing, and with a mandate to assemble a special investigative staff, push for declassification of key documents, grant witnesses immunity in exchange for cooperation, and produce a public report accepted as definitive by the legislative and executive branches alike. The ideal person would also be a Republican known for courage and for independence from both Bush and Obama -- and for personal knowledge of the horrors of torture.
His name is John McCain.
This article appears in the April 4, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.