Classified Memo on Interrogations Released: “Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading”

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Former Counselor of the State Department Philip Zelikow, gestures during a break in a Senate Administrative Oversight and the Courts subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2009, to examine Bush administration's detention and interrogation program. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Former Counselor of the State Department Philip Zelikow in 2009. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

On Wednesday, the National Security Archive, an advocacy group for greater government transparency based at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, released a once-classified document on “enhanced interrogation techniques” that was ordered destroyed in 2006 by the Bush White House.

The memo, written by Philip D. Zelikow, who at the time was counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “reflects strong internal disagreement within the George W. Bush administration over the constitutionality of such techniques…”

“According to Zelikow’s accounts, he authored the memo in an attempt to counter the Bush administration’s dubious claim that CIA could still practice ‘enhanced interrogation’ on enemy combatants despite the president’s December 2005 signing into law of the McCain Amendment, which, in Zelikow’s words, ‘extended the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to all conduct worldwide.’”

Although it was believed that all copies of the Zelikow memo had been burned, shredded or otherwise eliminated, a copy was found by the State Department and declassified in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Security Archive and Spencer Ackerman of Wired magazine. (View the memo in a PDF.)

Zelikow, who had previously served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission, was Secretary Rice’s representative on terrorism issues to the National Security Council’s deputies. His memo read, in part:

“If the techniques, taken together, are intrinsically cruel, inhuman or degrading — i.e., if under American constitutional law they would be either considered cruel and unusual or shock the conscience, then they are prohibited.”

“[It] appears to us that several of these techniques, singly or in combination, should be considered ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment… The techniques least likely to be sustained are the techniques described as ‘coercive,’ especially viewed cumulatively, such as the waterboard, walling, dousing, stress positions and cramped confinement.”

“…We are unaware of any precedent in World War II, the Korean war, the Vietnam war or any subsequent conflict for authorized, systematic interrogation practices similar to those in question here, even where the prisoners were presumed to be unlawful combatants.”

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, “Zelikow said his position as counselor to Rice did not entitle him to offer a legal opinion, but he felt obliged to put an alternative view before his colleagues at other agencies to warn them that the courts may take a different view…

“Zelikow told the Guardian in an email exchange that while he did not use the word torture in the memo, he believes that is what the CIA was using. ‘I do regard the interrogation practices and conditions of confinement, taken together, as torture – in the ordinary layman’s use of this term. But …”torture” is also a term with a carefully worded legal meaning and definition. So I tend to avoid talking about “torture” because it would appear I’m accusing officials of criminal activity, which I’m not sure was the case,’ he said.

“’I have sometimes just referred to “physical torment” instead, which seems expressive and is accurate.’”

In this file image reviewed by the U.S. Military, the sun rises over Guantanamo detention facility, at the U.S. Naval Base, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Nov. 19, 2008. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this photograph reviewed by the U.S. Military, the sun rises over Guantanamo detention facility, at the U.S. Naval Base, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Nov. 19, 2008. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Release of the document comes as the Defense Department refers charges “of terrorism, hijacking, murder and war crimes against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to a commission for trial by a military judge at Guantánamo Bay. The five, who will be arraigned within 30 days, could be sentenced to death if convicted. ”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was among those subjected to waterboarding and other interrogation extremes described in the declassified memo. “The problem of the codes of conduct we adopted in a twilight war like this have been alleviated in recent years,” Zelikow said in an interview with the Associated Press, “but the basic issues are not going away.”

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  • Charles e harvey

    “Interrogations Released: “Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading” Not in America, we are a Nation under God, just look at our puritan history when we landed on the rock, we did not use the rock to hurt others. However, we shot them. And do not forget we got rid of all the evil witches in Salem. And we brought those poor Afro-Americans from the horrible jungles of Africa, to give them homes on our plantation. Ask any American what they think of America? They will tell you “that we are the greatest country in the World.” Do not ask other countries that question. Thank God we are a humble nation under God.

  • Jo

     I think I may define taste to be that faculty of
    the soul which discerns the beauties of an author with pleasure, and the
    imperfections with dislike.

  • cottoncat

    Well said, and an appropriate reminder of political hypocrisy .

  • Donald G

    When you look at the fact that our country started with an invasion and then a century of genocide against the original “savages”, it is not such a “Christian” heritage as some would have us believe.

    Add to that the use of torture and other activities we have resorted to over the last decade and we have generally lost all moral authority we had in the world.  It is a sad thing. 

    Colin Powell was right… 

  • Charleseharvey

    It’s so great to find another person in America that sees the truth and cares. Thank you. America is the world leader in doing others I Nations and people’s inventory; however, they never had the courage or humbleness to do their own inventory.

  • Jean Provost

     Amen!  We seem to be, more and more, resorting to gratuitous cruelty!

  • Anonymous

    Phillip Zelikow is a curious figure. Here he claims to have given in,  in order to mitigate harm. President Bush II must have had confidence in him. He is the wrangler of the 9/11 Commission who kept that panel from controversial or deep inquiry, who guided them to easy and misleading conclusions. He reminds me of my mentor Arlen Specter at the time of the Warren Commission investigation, a very shady and compromising figure indeed. But Arlen has never accomplished anything so audacious as Zelikow’s justification of pre-emptive war on a much weaker non-threatening state (Iraq). A powerful mind can be applied to the commission of great crimes. (See also John Yoo, David Addington, Condoleeza Rice.)

  • leftofcenter

    The point of releasing this is what? None of the people involved will ever be held accountable. Many continue to run around, write books, give speeches, and the MSM stumble over themselves to be the first to have them on. Some cancel trips abroad because it’s “dangerous”, and that’s treated as almost a joke after the fact. Just like refusing to deal with race, society refuses to deal with torture and war criminals.

    As long as you’re safe from “terrorists”, who cares?

  • Anonymous

    You’re correct in these observations but a deterioration clock is also running.
    Right now it would be as easy to establish an armed insurgency (resistance?) in the USA as to organize a viable trade union. (I can build armed drones but I prefer to print T-shirts that read “innocent bystander” or “collateral damagee”.) At some point the fascist core (corporate financialism in domination of legal politics) becomes so oppressive in quashing dissent using surveillance, misinformation and paramilitary means (object lessons)  that tinderbox conditions arise as in Syria. (The ideological particulars there are different and the hot button issues, but the structure and methods are about the  same. They order their death dealing devices from the same corporate catalog.) A very real outcome could be the breakup of the USA into garrison states like Yugoslavia, and in fact when Austerity (debt ideology) strips the creature comforts for the masses, and when scapegoating and identity politics incite violence (It’s happening.) it becomes too late for civilized peaceful protest movements. Two understandings prevail:
    1) the one that treats our last chance (Occupy) as a joke and hopes to perpetuate current trends
    2)the one that sees chaos as opportunity because they assume they possess invincible power (Violence for them is always welcome because it justifies nihilist escalation.)
    We who hope to preserve civilization by altering it are of a third mindset.
    Maybe being barely “leftofcenter” you haven’t understood yet.
    You have to wonder why dystopian films are so wildly popular (crystal balls).

  • Anonymous

    Object lessons for flagging consumer confidence.

  • Anonymous

    All who fail to demand better are hypocrites or zombies.

  • karen kelly

    I no longer feel like a proud American. I love the freedoms we have but do feel shame at how we got here. Killed off the Native Americans, etc,etc,etc. What a record of inhumane treatment. The entitled  Christians  killing, and abusing this land,all in the name of God?!  It’s embarrassing & humiliating to think of these people are our ancestors. We don’t learn do we. We’re still doing the same thing to others. What arrogancy.

  • Anonymous

    Karen: Feel proud of what you aspire for America to become. 
    It’s OK to admit  the past atrocities and injustices done in the name of our country, but such awareness is useless except as a means of preventing repeats of these mistakes. We could do some repairs but can’t change the past. I do not think you killed any Native Americans or bought and sold any slaves. Our consciences today should arouse us to react in protesting injustices and crimes we witness or discover. What are some of the situations that most disturb Karen Kelly now, and what is she willing to do to stop them? (Do not feel singled out. I am a 56 year old disabled man suffering from dwarfism and my Socratic inquiries to posters are something I contribute in lieu of a more mobile and dynamic opportunity.)

  • Anonymous

    Something strange and sinister must be happening at the Univ. of Virginia in Charlottesville.
    So many strange fascist birds are emerging from that nest.
    Can anyone share any theories or particulars?

  • Floyd Cathey

    This type of activity affects us all, what we do to the least of us we often end up doing to all. I truely wonder what if anything we as Americans would do if these tactics were to be employed uopn us here in our own home towns. The greatist injusticeof all, is that those who orderd it are still not held accountable for there crimes, but those who followed there orders ended up being prosecuited and imprisoned after a media blitz targeting only our soldiers. Where is your outcry and activist dogma for them.

  • Barb Shillinger

    I would like to chime in here, if you don’t mind, Grady, even though you directed your question to Karen.  There are many injustices that I see now:

    One is that we  are that we are trying to “export” our rather flawed version of democracy to other countries by waging war in their countries, thus destroying their land, society, and commerce, as well as killing many hundred thousands, if not millions, of their citizens as well as thousands of our own warriors.

    Another is that our justice system does not afford justice to all citizens equally, regardless of race, creed, or income level.  This is something that should bother all of us.

    Third, our taxation system has allowed the vast majority of Americans to gain next to nothing for the last three decades, as the top .1% (the . is not a mistake, it’s a decimal point) received a 350% increase in their income. I feel as if this is a great injustice, too, even though some people/parties seem to think it is just fine.

    A fourth thingthe upsets me  is that the Supreme Court has decreed that money=free speech and Corporations are “people” with free speech rights. Will Corporations  soon be able to VOTE too? Well, actually, yes they can, and dol by “speaking” with their money, they attempt to unduly influence our elections at every level and remain anonymous at the same time. What happened to “transparency?”  

    A fifth thing is that our government’s efforts to help the poor have access to education, health care, and nutritious food have been reduced in order to give more handouts to big corporations and to wage stupid, wasteful  wars in farflung places. It is easier for some politicians to adhere to the “myth” that poor people are poor because they “don’t know how to work hard,” rather than that they are laboring under a system that denies them fair pay and benefits for the hard (“menial, unskilled”) work  they do everyday ( the unseen work that many take for granted but do not appreciate), and access to better education and better jobs.

    There are more, but I’m tired of typing. I agree with you, Grady, that we should not spend our time/thoughts dwelling on the past sins committed by our ancestors, but concentrate instead on the bad  things that are happening right now;  perhaps we can do something about those. Also, most people, like you said, did not do those terrible things in the past, but it was a very unfair time, even more so than now. 

    I also like your question about what Karen is willing to do now to stop the injustice in our country and the wider world. I hope she is signing lots of petitions, writing lots of comments and letters, initiating lots of thoughtful conversations with the people she comes in contact with every day about our political/social system and how we can make it better and more fair, and taking part in peaceful protests and rallies drawing attention to the things she is unhappy about. 

     I have never been an activist before, Grady, but I am taking part in protests, and I am doing it, not because I LIKE to, but because I CAN and because it NEEDS to be done–I often feel “out of my comfort zone” because this is so new for me.  I do it for myself, but also for the many others who CAN’T: people with physical challenges–old and young, people with both physical and/or mental illnesses –old and young, the aged (my mom is 95–she and other people her age, lost half their savings  in the Crash, and unlike you and I, they won’t live long enough to regain what they lost), the young like my grandgirls who are too young to understand but who will inherit many of our problems if we don’t fix them now, the many people  that are struggling while holding down multiple jobs to keep their houses and feed their kids, and the people who are afraid they’ll get fired if they protest or march.

    These are the things I am trying to do now, because I can’t think of any more I can do. But it someone points out something more, or I think about something more I can do, I’ll try to do that, too. I hope everyone will stand up for what they believe and do what they can to make our government and society better. I commend you for participating in the ways you can, Grady, by doing the things that are in your power to do, like asking Socratic Questions that cause the rest us to think and do what we can do.