The Terror President

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

In these last weeks of turbulent events, the single most significant has not been the financial crisis, not the fall of a governor, not the passing of the fifth year of the war without end in Iraq. It has been an American president’s formal blessing of the use of torture.

That was what President Bush did in early March when he vetoed legislation prohibiting the use of brutal methods of interrogation by American intelligence agents. His action was quickly overtaken by other news. But in its redefinition of American values—of the American character—it had profound implications.

I grew up believing that Americans did not torture prisoners, as Hitler’s and Stalin’s agents did. There were rogue episodes of American brutality, but to make torture a national policy? Unthinkable.

No one should be in any doubt that torture was what President Bush had in mind. No one should be fooled by Orwellian talk of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

What Congress sought to outlaw was such things as hanging prisoners from the ceiling by their wrists, beating them, depriving them of food and water, preventing them from sleeping for days, keeping them in freezing temperatures, using electric shocks on them, and subjecting them to waterboarding—an almost-drowning technique that was used by the Inquisition and by Japanese soldiers who were successfully prosecuted for it by the United States after World War II. Torture.

All such methods are prohibited by the Army Field Manual. They are barred by international conventions that the United States has ratified. After the scandal of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Congress reiterated the ban in legislation covering the US military. What President Bush vetoed was a bill to extend the explicit, reiterated ban to CIA agents.

In announcing the veto, Mr. Bush said that “the program”—his euphemistic term for interrogation methods used in secret CIA prisons at “black sites” on foreign soil—had produced information that exposed planned terrorist attacks. He made specific claims: that “the program helped us stop a plot to strike a US Marine camp in Djibouti,” for example, and “a plot to hijack a passenger plane and fly it into Library Tower in Los Angeles.” He offered no evidence to support these claims. Nor is there proof that they are false. But skepticism is surely in order for self-serving assertions by a president who has misled the country about so much in his war, including the use of torture.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has sometimes been criticized for being too easy on the President, said of Mr. Bush’s claims:

I have heard nothing to suggest that information obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented an imminent terrorist attack. And I have heard nothing that makes me think the information obtained from these techniques could not have been obtained through traditional interrogation methods used by military and law enforcement interrogators.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.