What happened
The debate over torturing suspected terrorists flared anew this week, after The New York Times reported that the Justice Department was secretly endorsing harsh interrogation techniques at the same time that the Bush administration was publicly denying it had abused any prisoners. Classified memos unearthed by the Times explicitly authorized simulated drowning, head-slapping, and induced hypothermia, while implicitly sanctioning the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation. One memo, written in response to a 2005 law banning “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” interrogation methods, simply declared that none of the methods employed by the CIA violated that standard.

The memos were written in 2005 under the direction of then–Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, shortly after the administration declared torture “abhorrent to American law and values.” Addressing the issue this week, President Bush said that “this government does not torture people” and adheres to “U.S. law and our international obligations.” But the White House declined comment on what practices it believes are legal and ethical.  

In July, after the Supreme Court ruled that the treatment of suspected terrorists is bound by the Geneva Conventions, Bush issued an order prohibiting simulated drowning, also known as waterboarding, and some other methods previously used by the CIA. But congressional Democrats and some Republicans said the memos show that the White House has been deceptive. “I’m tired of these games,” said Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The White House said key members of Congress had been briefed on the interrogation policy.  

What the editorials said
Who does Bush think he’s fooling? said The Washington Post. He can call these techniques whatever he likes, but according to common sense, to say nothing of international law, they are torture. Now we learn that the Justice Department has been secretly concocting a contorted legal justification for this disgrace. “The administration has essentially been operating its own clandestine legal system, unaccountable to Congress.”

For that, Americans should be grateful, said The Wall Street Journal. If Congress had its way, terrorist interrogations would be “as tame as a church social.” Fortunately, the CIA didn’t have its hands tied when it pried information out of al Qaida masterminds Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, likely saving countless lives. Isn’t it telling that Democrats “smear” the administration with “the generalization of ‘torture,’” but never say which techniques they would sanction in the war on terror?  

What the columnists said
Here’s a good rule of thumb, said Andrew Sullivan in the New York Post: If the Nazis developed a technique, we shouldn’t use it. Many of the methods approved by the Justice Department were, in fact, treated as war crimes after World War II. Even the administration’s preferred euphemism, “enhanced interrogation,” is “the exact term innovated by the Gestapo.” International law defines torture as infliction of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering.” That our government is now playing semantic games with “severe’’ puts us in some ugly company.
But crying “torture” over slaps and loud noises, said Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal, is like calling abortion doctors murderers. “This isn’t argument. It’s moral bullying.” Even waterboarding, arguably the most extreme tactic in the U.S. arsenal, is something that CIA agents volunteer to undergo during training. Do you think they’d allow someone to stick needles under their fingernails? True brutality should not be an option. But, sometimes, it’s necessary to compromise our own moral standards for the sake of  â€œself preservation.”

That’s a false choice, said Robert Baer in Time.com. Legal or not,  â€œtorture doesn’t work.” As a former CIA field officer, I’ve seen firsthand that regimes that use torture are great at intimidating their citizens, but lousy at producing useful intelligence. When prisoners are in great pain or in great terror, they’ll say everything and anything, and you can’t tell what is true and what is not. In short, we’re “spending a lot of international capital for very little return.”

What next?
Disclosure of the torture memos is likely to complicate next week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney General–designate Michael Mukasey. Some Senate Democrats wanted to delay the hearings altogether, unless the Bush administration turned over the documents to them. Lawmakers withdrew that threat, but now say they will press the nominee on the torture issue. They also plan to seek a commitment from Mukasey to replace Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department official who wrote the controversial directives.