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Civil Liberties

Inside our Room 101.

“You asked me once,” said O’Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing, Winston could not see what the thing was.

“The worst thing in the world,” said O’Brien, “varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by implement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal…In your case,” said O’Brien, “the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.”

And, sometimes, here in our own Room 101, it’s insects. As breaking everywhere this afternoon, the President authorizes the release of four long-awaited CIA memos that detail the rationalizing and application of Bush-era torture policies. [No. 1 | No. 2, No. 3a/3b | 4a/4b.] And, as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald notes, they seem to suggest that even the parties-that-be knew what they were doing constituted torture. (“Each year, in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States condemns coercive interrogation techniques and other practices employed by other countries. Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned appear to bear resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques…The State Department’s inclusion of nudity, water dousing, sleep deprivation, and food deprivation among the conduct it condemns is significant and provides some indication of an executive foreign relations tradition condemning the use of these techniques.“) But, they approved these already-condemned practices as legal anyway, with the caveat that they “cannot predict with confidence whether a court would agree with this conclusion.” Yeah, you think?

Well, let’s hope the courts get a chance to decide either way. While releasing these documents today, Pres. Obama and Attorney General Holder also made clear that the CIA interrogators involved will not be prosecuted for these acts. “‘It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department,’ he said in a statement.” Um, I’m of the opinion that it would be unfair to get strung up in a, cough, “stress position” by a bunch of Cheney-authorized CIA yahoos and then see no legal recourse for it. (And, hey, “just following orders” — what a novel legal defense. Who were the ad wizards that came up with that one?)

On the other hand, as the WP points out: “Today’s carefully worded statement left open the possibility, however, that agents and higher-level officials who may have ventured beyond the strategies approved by Bush lawyers could face legal jeopardy for their actions.” That still closes too many legal doors, imho. The strategies approved by Bush lawyers are horrible — and illegal — enough. But, at least we can still hold out the minute possibility that the real, top-level architects of Dubya-era torture policy will face some sort of prosecution for their crimes, above and beyond their inevitable condemnation in the history books. (President Obama may argue that “[t]his is a time for reflection, not retribution,” but, the law is the law. And, as he should know, pardoning Nixon didn’t do Gerald Ford any favors.)

Either way, let’s be clear: These memos prove beyond a shadow of a doubt — as if there were any doubt left — that it was the stated and directed policy of the Dubya-era CIA to engage in acts they knew to be torture. That is unacceptable, completely antithetical to our ideals, and exceedingly worthy of a criminal investigation. If, in the name of national unity or CIA morale or whatever, the president wants to give a pass to the flunkies who actually held the victims down as they flailed, choked, or writhed in agony…well, that just means somebody else higher-up has to pay. Fine. But, if the rule of law means anything anymore, and I believe it does, the people responsible must be held to account.

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