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Originally published April 30, 2009 at 4:34 PM | Page modified May 1, 2009 at 9:50 AM

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Lance Dickie

Investigate the origins and use of torture

The Bush administration's use of torture cost this nation dearly. Explore the origins and use of torture with a public inquiry to reconcile what transpired and set a new path for moving forward. As a country, we cannot condemn the use of torture by others and ignore it when we use it ourselves.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Certainly, the authors never expected it to become public, because the infamous Bybee torture memo is a blatant exercise in getting to "Yes." It is a creepy, lethal, sycophantic classic.

The 50-page "Standards of Conduct for Interrogations," over the signature of Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, is a contrivance of rationales, assurances and holes to crawl through. Are White House lawyers hired to provide legal advice or legal cover?

The Aug. 1, 2002, memo ought to be the centerpiece of an open, candid national conversation about torture. President Obama gets credit for releasing documents and photos that reveal and depict what happened under U.S. authority around the globe.

Obama also made it clear he would stop short of anything that might arguably end up with Dick Cheney lying under oath. The president said he was interested in "reflection, not retribution." I think he overlooked a third R: reconciliation.

Reconciliation is not only about understanding what transpired, but also committing to a new way forward, a new course of behavior. For starters, the country needs to face up to what was done in its name and weigh the pragmatic costs of torture to our security — information and reputation lost.

Was the administration already using torture when it sought a legal justification? Why waterboarding instead of other established, effective means of interrogation? Obama has joined military and civilian experts who raised that last question.

Bybee, now a federal judge, worked with John Yoo and Steven Bradbury in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. They reported to President Bush's in-house lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, later attorney general.

Our elected leaders cannot be afraid to ask hard questions about the pursuit of a legal rationale for torture. If that characterization is incorrect, set the record straight in a public forum. Create a congressional panel or independent inquiry with the power to call witnesses, demand answers and secure documents.

I am more interested in information than sending anyone to jail, but the guardhouse was clearly on the mind of the Bush administration when its consigliere got the assignment. Their clients were obviously replaying "Judgment at Nuremberg" in their heads. If we use torture, can the world later hunt us down? A colloquial summary, but a central concern. No, not a problem; existing prohibitions were seen as easily finessed.

What is torture? The legal advice treats torture as a word game. Anything one does or is caught doing can be argued as not rising to torture. Go for it. All the nitpicking language floating about really only "prohibits the most extreme forms of physical or mental harm." And that means what? Even the words "cruel and inhuman" do not equate to torture for the lawyers. If pressed, say you had no clue the technique could do harm or you intended to do harm.

The über excuse is that any outside second-guessing about cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment interferes with the president's war-making powers. Endless repetition of "war on terror" was not rhetorical flourish, but calculated language.

Oh, and one more thing, the memo argues: If all else fails, pound on the table about necessity and self-defense. Seattle University law professor John Strait finds the invocation of traditional criminal law exemptions "even more offensive" than other intellectually insupportable arguments. He wonders about violations of an attorney's oath and rules of professional conduct.

Use of torture cost this nation dearly, from the loss of credibility to virtual recruiting for terrorists.

Convene a public inquiry to reconcile what happened, remind those who follow that attention is paid, and set a new course.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Lance Dickie

Lance writes on natural resources and environmental topics, regional issues, national politics and international affairs for the editorial page. | 206-464-2324

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