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The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib    edited by Karen J. Greenberg & Joshua L. Dratel order for
Torture Papers
by Karen J. Greenberg
Order:  USA  Can
Cambridge University Press, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Torture Papers is quite a tome, which is not inappropriate given the weight of its subject matter. It's edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel. Greenberg is Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NY University School of Law. Dratel is President of the NY State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and lead defense counsel for an Australian Guantanamo detainee. They have compiled a collection of memoranda (about a third of the book), and reports (the remaining two thirds), that escort readers along 'The Road to Abu Ghraib'.

In his Introduction, Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Lewis calls these memoranda 'an extraordinary paper trail to mortal and political disaster: to an episode that will soil the image of the United States in the eyes of the world for years to come', and speaks of the insight they give into misuse of legal talents 'in the cause of evil.' He tells us that the administration's premise after 9/11 was 'that the end, fighting terrorism, justified whatever means were chosen' and that 'Keeping courts out was a major element in several programs.' He reminds us that 'torture does terrible damage not only to the victim but to the torturer.'

In her essay, 'From Fear to Torture', Karen Greenberg calls this volume the 'chronological, legal, and political story of how a traditionally banned form of interrogation became policy.' Of the U.S. decision to use torture, she asks 'what will be the spiritual cost, the overall damage to the character of the nation?' She tells us that the memos show that lawyers and policy makers knowingly overstepped legal doctrine, against the advice of people like Colin Powell and William H. Taft. She calls for use of the information in the book 'for open-minded reflection and self-correction even in times such as these.'

In his take on 'The Legal Narrative', Joshua L. Dratel states that the path to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib was 'paved with decidedly bad intentions': to house prisoners in a location secure from intervention by the courts; to abrogate the Geneva Convention relating to treatment of prisoners; and to avoid war crime liability. He warns that fear of terrorism cannot give license 'to suspend our constitutional heritage, our core values as a nation, or the behavioral standards that mark a civilized and humane society.'

The first memo (on September 25, 2001) addresses 'The President's Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them'. A memo from the Assistant Attorney General, dated August 1, 2002, on 'Standards of Conduct for Interrogation' begins a series of particularly disturbing documents. This first one addresses when 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading' acts are sufficiently cruel, inhuman, and degrading to constitute torture. You have to wonder what those who prepared these papers were thinking. Did they see it as purely an analytical exercise? Did they think at all about the possible consequences of their words to real people?

The reports (all issued in 2004) include one from the International Committee of the Red Cross to Coalition Forces, addressing 'serious violations to International Humanitarian Law'. There are several military reports beginning with the Taguba Report on detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, and including witness testimony, and a report by the NY City Bar Association on international legal standards for detainee interrogation. The Schlesinger Report (by an Independent Panel appointed by Donald Rumsfeld) states that the Abu Ghraib prison abuses 'represent deviant behavior and a failure of military leadership and discipline', but also that the 'vast majority of detainees ... were treated appropriately'. And an American Bar Association Report to the House of Delegates urges the U.S. government to comply fully with the Geneva Conventions.

The Torture Papers documents the state's slide down the slippery slope from the moral high ground that its citizens expect, through creeping rationalizations of what does and does not constitute a 'grave breach' of the Geneva Conventions. In any organization, and particularly in government, leadership sets the moral tone. In that context, I found particularly disturbing those memos that used legal nitpicking and quibbling to excuse deviating from the intent of international agreements on a country's obligations in wartime. The U.S. has historically been respected by other democratic societies for the power of its free press to illuminate dubious policy areas and effect change. I very much hope, for all our sakes that this is what will happen now, through the publication of this tortuous paper trail.

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