12/12/2014 02:52 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

The Bogus Defense of 'Enhanced Interrogations'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Despite irrefutable evidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee report that the CIA engaged in grotesque acts of torture in the years after 9/11, a group of former CIA directors and officials have taken to the airwaves to claim these actions were justified as a legally authorized program of "enhanced interrogations."

Whatever the intentions of the beltway creators of this program, we now know that, right from the beginning, the program used illegal forms of torture.

The country would be well served if the CIA and its defenders would acknowledge this truth, apologize for what happened, and support laws to ensure it does not happen again. Continued advocacy for the discredited concept of "enhanced interrogations" is only compounding the damage to the United States that has resulted from this program and the decade-long controversy about it.

From the beginning, the concept of "enhanced interrogations" was based on the flawed view that it is possible to distinguish between legal and illegal uses of violence during interrogations. Virtually everything we know about human psychology and the nature of bureaucracies provided ample warning that once violence was introduced into the process -- the interrogations would devolve to torture.

And that is what occurred.

For example, the CIA assured the Justice Department that "enhanced interrogations" would begin initially using the least coercive forms of violence and psychological distress techniques. But in the field, this guideline was immediately disregarded. Interrogators quickly escalated right up to the harsh techniques of sleep deprivation, requiring detainees to stand in place for hours, and the "confinement" box.

Promised limitations on the "enhanced" methods were also exceeded. If one simulated drowning would not cause "prolonged mental harm," the interrogators reasoned, then how could 2, or 10 or 183 (the number of times Khalid Sheik Mohammed faced this practice)? If it was okay to place a detainee in a box with insects (a practice the Justice Department authorized), then why would it be impermissible to engage in "rectal feeding" (a medically unnecessary practice the Senate report says was used on detainees).

The original sin, therefore, was to authorize the use of violence and intentional infliction of mental distress in the first place. The entire list of horribles in the Senate report followed from this initial lapse in judgment by the president and his top advisors.

Nonetheless, the CIA's defenders continue to claim that the CIA acted appropriately because the program had been ordered by the president and certified as legal by the Department of Justice.

It is important to remember that the legal opinions authorizing the program were written by the White House's cherry-picked lawyer, John Yoo, who ignored all the venerable traditions of the Justice Department regarding vetting of its analysis with legal experts throughout the government. Many civilian and military lawyers in the Department of Defense, with far more expertise than Yoo in matters relating to interrogation law, made clear that his legal opinions were flat out wrong.

You don't have to be a constitutional scholar to recognize that the memos were absurd on their face. Pages and pages of the analysis were comprised of a lawyer sitting at his desk in Washington attempting to determine whether the amount of physical and psychological pain resulting from an "enhanced interrogation" technique on a detainee, of unknown physical condition, in a cell 5,000 miles away, was "severe." The perversion is even deeper when you consider that approval of the program by the Justice Department rested on assurances that doctors -- pledged by oath and law to heal the sick -- would be on site to regulate how much pain and psychological distress could be imposed on a detainee without causing "prolonged mental harm."

The fact that CIA personnel relied on the defective Justice Department memos is good reason to absolve individual interrogators of criminal liability. But it is not a justification for former CIA directors, officials, and agents to be defending the merits of the program. True, these were extraordinary times. But the program the CIA constructed and urged the president to approve was ethically and morally corrupted to its very core.

Instead of doubling down on the defense of this program, now would have been the time to admit mistakes and urge the country and the world to think about how the CIA can contribute to addressing the multiple, serious security challenges facing the world. The United States cannot lead the world if it condones the use of torture. It is unclear why the patriots who led the U.S. government and the CIA through the trauma of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, fail to recognize this.