The four Justice Department memos to the CIA's top lawyer that were released last week reflect an effort by Bush administration appointees to create finely tuned justifications for harsh interrogation techniques, all under a blanket of secrecy covering the agency's prisons and the questioning.
In the wake of the memos' disclosure, it is clear that the lawyers and the CIA got it wrong in measuring the methods against their selected legal test: that they must not "shock the conscience." The brutality of the interrogation measures -- including repeatedly slamming people into walls, simulating their drowning and stuffing them into dark, constricting boxes -- shocked the conscience of at least some.
President Obama said the approved techniques "undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer."
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said that although the CIA was urgently trying to get information after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, its "methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing."
To supporters of the Bush-era practices, the length, precision and detail of the memos show that -- even in the absence of public scrutiny -- legal red lines were carefully considered and that precautions were taken to avoid causing death or what the memos' authors considered illegal pain.
To critics, the sterile wording and articulation of seemingly arbitrary safeguards to sanction what many consider torture evoke totalitarianism.
To endorse the CIA's interrogation plans, the experts in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel had to parse highly specific terminology in a collection of relatively recent U.S. anti-torture statutes, international laws and treaties, with few directly applicable judicial rulings to serve as guideposts.
They also had to weigh contemporary politics, since the "shock the conscience" test was a target they knew would move.