The memos detailing the brutal interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11 is equal parts banality and sadism.
Prompted by a Freedom of Information request by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Obama administration last week released memos about the CIA's methods and the Bush Justice Department's rationale for them.
Despite CIA Director Leon Panetta's objections, memos listing 14 approved techniques -- including waterboarding -- were made public with minimal redaction. The CIA argued that opening any documents would reveal too much about its methods while providing a propaganda boon to the nation's enemies.
Written by members of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005, the memos contain instructions on how to maximize discomfort for detainees without killing them. Tips on waterboarding included the angle that a prisoner should be strapped to a gurney, from what height the water should be poured and the time the interrogator needs to "simulate" drowning.
The language of the memos is bloodless and bureaucratic, especially where it describes various coercive techniques. Even the description of sleep deprivation, abdominal slaps and the use of nudity celebrate the banality -- and ordinariness -- of evil.
Attorney General Eric Holder insisted that Americans deserve to know the truth about what was done in their name. Transparency is more important than worrying about the morale of those at the CIA who fear prosecution for actions originally approved by the Bush Justice Department.
President Obama sided with Mr. Holder, but he took prosecution off the table, along with any accountability. Mr. Panetta lost the argument, but he secured legal cover for his subordinates. He persuaded Mr. Obama that demoralized CIA employees would not extend themselves beyond the minimum if they had to worry about being prosecuted when an administration changed hands.
The president has described the era of CIA-administered torture as a "dark and painful chapter in our history." but doesn't believe anything "will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
We agree that wallowing in the past is unproductive, plus the country doesn't need the distraction of CIA prosecutions right now. But there has to be an honest accounting of what went wrong before the nation can move on.
The New York Times reported that waterboarding was used 266 times on two al-Qaida members. Abu Zubaydah was subjected to the method 83 times and 9/11 conspirator Khalid Shaikh Mohammed experienced simulated drowning 183 times.
Fortunately, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has proposed an independent commission of inquiry into such state-sanctioned torture. This is a legitimate exercise of Congress' oversight and a responsible way to go. Things that are not characteristic of the United States happened on the Bush administration's watch. It would be unpatriotic and contemptuous of our great democracy to pretend otherwise.