WASHINGTON — Thank goodness for whistle blowers, those public servants who think Americans should know the harm that is being inflicted in our name.
Some of those high-minded officials recently revealed to the New York Times that the Bush administration has abandoned its 2004 legal opinion that torture is "abhorrent" and instead has resumed "brutal interrogations" of prisoners.
The Times said two subsequent Justice Department legal opinions — implemented by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — gave the go-ahead for interrogators to resort to physical and psychological tactics that inflict pain on suspects.
The authorization endorsed use of the harshest techniques applied by the CIA, including head slapping, "waterboarding" that simulates drowning, holding detainees in frigid temperatures, manacling prisoners in stress positions for hours, sleep deprivation for days and nights and subjecting them to long hours of thundering rock music.
White House and Justice Department officials insist that the opinions do not conflict with the administration's promise not to torture suspects. But these memos have never been released.
The Times said this was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government authorized such tactics. Supposedly, these get-tough techniques were designed to produce crucial information.
There are arguments on the other side for more humane persuasion and less pain. And there has been some conscientious resistance to torture among top Justice Department officials and some military lawyers.
The new orders also renew the CIA's authority to hold prisoners in so-called overseas "black sites."
The secret detention centers are reportedly located in Afghanistan, Thailand and Eastern Europe, where brutal tactics can be employed out of sight. They apparently are secret only to Americans.
The Times reported "nervous" CIA interrogators from abroad sent inquiries back to agency lawyers at headquarters to ask: "Are we breaking the laws against torture?"
Obviously sensitive to such shameful reports, President Bush said at a recent news conference and also repeated in an Oval Office statement last week: "We do not torture."
It may come down to what he means by "torture."
Unfortunately, his poor credibility in the run-up to the war against Iraq requires that he deliver more details rather than make simple assertions. Will he say it under oath? And will he define "torture"?
White House press secretary Dana Perino tells reporters repeatedly that "it is not our policy to torture." But policy is one thing, action is another.
Frances Fragos Townsend, White House homeland security adviser, justifies extreme interrogation, telling CNN that al-Qaida terrorists "are trained to resist harsh interrogations." Her premise is that Americans could get killed "if we failed to do the hard things."
This is a case of her claiming that the ends justify the means.
So as long as there is doubt, the president should release all the guidelines for so-called "enhanced interrogation." The details probably won't come as a surprise to potential terrorists.
Congress also would like to see the details because the lawmakers have outlawed "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of prisoners. This ban is consistent with the wording of the United Nations' 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that U.S. prisoners are covered by the Geneva Conventions barring abusive treatment.
The Bush administration got off track starting with the infamous 2002 memo drafted by John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who was then working at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.
Yoo, a strong supporter of expanded presidential power, claimed that no interrogation practices were illegal unless they caused the equivalent of organ failure "or even death."
When did President Bush begin to think that U.S. laws and treaty obligations did not apply to him or his team? How can he allow the perception stand that America tortures prisoners?
Thank goodness there are some officials brave enough to call his hand.
c.2007 Hearst Newspapers