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Bush Torture Memos: Commercial Diets Used As Justification

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In an effort to rationalize the use of dietary manipulation on detainees, Bush administration officials turned to Slim Fast and Jenny Craig.

In a footnote to a May 10, 2005, memorandum from the Office of Legal Council, the Bush attorney general's office argued that restricting the caloric intake of terrorist suspects to 1000 calories a day was medically safe because people in the United States were dieting along those lines voluntarily.

"While detainees subject to dietary manipulation are obviously situated differently from individuals who voluntarily engage in commercial weight-loss programs, we note that widely available commercial weight-loss programs in the United States employ diets of 1000 kcal/day for sustain periods of weeks or longer without requiring medical supervision," read the footnote. "While we do not equate commercial weight loss programs and this interrogation technique, the fact that these calorie levels are used in the weight-loss programs, in our view, is instructive in evaluating the medical safety of the interrogation technique."

Buried on the seventh page of a 43-page document, the note on dietary restrictions underscores the painstaking detail to which the Bush administration went in order to validate the use of harsh interrogation techniques. It also reflects a tendency by the memo's authors to put some of their more interesting reflections not in the text of the memo itself, but in the footnotes.

Also listed at the bottom of some of the memorandum pages are admissions of interrogations that crossed medical and ethical lines, tips on how to prolong techniques while staying within the confines of the legal limits, and detailed efforts to objectively define what constitutes torture and pain.

Take, for instance, a footnote from the page 41 of that same memo, in which the authors acknowledged that for a period of time interrogators had been using waterboarding with more frequency and intensity than was deemed medically safe.

"The difference was in the manner in which the detainee's breathing was obstructed," read the footnote, citing an earlier Inspector General report. "At the SERE school and in the DoJ opinion, the subject's airflow is disrupted by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passages; the interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner. By contrast, the Agency interrogator ... applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee's mouth and nose."

After medical officials said they could not ensure the safety of the form of waterboarding being used by Agency interrogators, the interrogators implemented "a number of changes in the application ... including limits on the frequency and cumulative use of the technique," according to the footnote.

Earlier in the memo, the authors note in another footnote that between 1992 and 2001, 4.3 percent of the Marine officials (roughly 1,153 in total) who were waterboarded as part of their SERE training went on to have "some contact with psychology services" due to that experience. The author's deem this a good thing, because only three percent of those individuals (roughly 34 in total) ended up withdrawing from the program.

Then there is the topic of sleep deprivation. The Bush administration memo goes into great detail about the process, restrictions and procedures involved in denying a detainee sleep in a medically safe fashion. But in a footnote that starts on page 11 and goes into page 12, the authors admit that "on three occasions early in the program the interrogation team and the attendant medical officers identified the potential for unacceptable edema in the lower limbs of detainees undergoing standing sleep deprivation." The interrogators resolved the problem by putting the detainees through "horizontal sleep deprivation" as their limbs recovered.

In a footnote five pages later, the authors insist that it is impossible that sleep deprivation would cause "prolonged mental harm" (which would be outlawed by the government's standards) because any hallucinations that could occur during the technique would end once the detainee was allowed to sleep again.

"Even if [medical personnel] were not aware of any such hallucinations," reads the footnote, "whatever time would remain between the onset of such hallucinations, which presumably would be well into the period of sleep deprivation, and the 180-hour maximum for sleep deprivation would not constitute prolonged mental harm within the meaning of the statute."

Indeed, it is in the footnotes where the authors strive hardest to wipe their hands clean of any potential accusation of condoning abuse or wrongdoing. It is also the place where they seem to admit the likelihood that the techniques they spent pages legally rationalizing could be used in ways that go beyond their legality. Take, for instance, the use of facial and abdominal slapping. After describing both techniques in the text as involving "a degree of physical pain," but nothing to the extent of "severe physical pain," the authors put the obvious cautionary point in their footnotes.

"Our advice about both the facial slap and the abdominal slap assumes that the interrogators will apply those techniques as designed and will not strike the detainee with excessive force or repetition in a manner that might result in severe physical pain."

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