Obama releases documents that give the most detailed look at interrogation techniques.

Obama releases documents that give the most detailed look at interrogation techniques.

Obama releases documents that give the most detailed look at interrogation techniques.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 17 2009 6:25 AM

Getting Away With Torture

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Postlead with the Justice Department documents released by the Obama administration that provide the most detailed accounting to date of the harsh interrogation tactics used by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Bush administration, as well as the legal reasoning to back them up. At the same time, the administration made it clear that CIA officers who followed the guidelines would not be prosecuted. The four memos, one from 2002 and three from 2005, spell out in painstaking detail the techniques that could be used to get information from prisoners.

USA Todayleads with a look at how Democrats and Republicans in state legislatures across the country are having the same "classic fight over taxes" as Congress. As states struggle to balance their budgets during a recession, Democrats are pushing for tax increases on the wealthy, while Republicans want to cut taxes for businesses. The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide newsbox with President Obama stating that the ball is now in Cuba's court as the United States will not remove any more of its sanctions against the island until it gets some reciprocal action from the Cuban government. "Having taken the first step I think it's very much in our interests to see whether Cuba is also ready to change," Obama said during his visit to Mexico.

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Many of the interrogation tactics described in the Justice Department memos were already well-known, but others either haven't received a lot of attention or were unknown. The two highlights involve insects and "walling." In one memo, lawyers allowed interrogators to exploit a prisoner's fear of insects by putting him in a small box with what they would describe as a stinging insect when, in fact, it would be a harmless one, "such as a caterpillar." The technique was allowed, although never actually used, as long as the prisoner was told the insect "will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain." In the practice known as "walling," a prisoner could be pushed "quickly and firmly" against a "flexible false wall" so that his shoulder blades hit the wall and produce a loud noise. Interrogators could do this up to "thirty times consecutively."

Even if most of the techniques had already been known, that doesn't make the memos any less terrifying, particularly when all the techniques are brought together and described in such detail. Prisoners could be deprived of sleep for as many as 11 days, confined to small boxes, doused with water as cold as 41 degrees, kept shackled for days at a time, and slapped in the face and abdomen, among others. All with the ultimate goal of making prisoners feel as if they have "no control over basic human needs." The memos also included extensive discussions about water-boarding and how it should be carried out. But the NYT points out that these directives weren't always followed, and one memo notes that water-boarding was used "with far greater frequency than initially indicated" and with "large volumes of water."

The LAT notes that, as outlined in the documents, "[e]ven the less violent techniques … can have a harrowing aspect," and points out that a prisoner being deprived of sleep would have his feet shackled to the floor, his hands cuffed near his chin. In that position the prisoner would be forced to wear a diaper and fed by hand and wouldn't be able to fall asleep because he would lose his balance.

Reading through the memos, it is evident that the administration's lawyers devoted lots of effort to justifying each and every technique. As the WP notes, the lawyers seemed to "put significant weight on the question of whether the tactics would cause severe, lasting pain."

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The memos were released after a long, drawn-out fight within the upper echelons of the Obama administration. The CIA opposed the Justice Department's desire to release the documents. But ultimately, the documents were released practically without redactions, marking a victory for Attorney General Eric Holder. The talks became more urgent in recent weeks as the administration faced a court-imposed deadline in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to obtain the documents. Obama said the documents illustrated "a dark and painful chapter in our history," but the WSJ reports that the president "wrestled with the decision" on Wednesday night and had been considering redacting more of the information. The WSJ says that one of the main factors that pushed Obama to release the documents was that the New York Review of Books had published the Red Cross account of the interrogations, which led him to conclude that most of the information was already known.

Although Obama said that those who followed the advice from Justice would not be prosecuted, a carefully worded statement seems to leave "open the possibility that operatives and higher-level administration officials could face jeopardy if they ventured beyond the boundaries drawn by the Bush lawyers," notes the Post. The NYT also points out that it's not clear whether the lawyers themselves could be penalized in some way.

The WSJ and NYT front word that the head of the Obama administration's auto task force, Steven Rattner, is one of the executives involved in what has been described as a pay-to-play scheme to obtain business from New York state's pension fund. Rattner isn't named in a Securities Exchange Commission complaint, but both papers say he is the "senior executive" at Rattner's investment firm, Quadrangle Group, that is mentioned. The whole issue is a bit confusing because the investigation into the fund has been going on for a while. It basically breaks down into two parts. Through an affiliated company, Quadrangle acquired the DVD rights to a low-budget movie that was produced by New York's deputy comptroller and his brothers, netting the producers almost $90,000. Soon afterward, the deputy comptroller informed Quadrangle that it would get a $100 million investment from the pension fund. And then Quadrangle paid $1.1 million in finder's fees to a company affiliated with one of the comptroller's top political aides. Such payments aren't illegal per se, but why would Quadrangle need to pay an intermediary when Rattner had already met with the deputy comptroller, particularly since it had previously retained a separate intermediary for the deal? Both papers emphasize that Rattner, a former NYT reporter, hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, and the Treasury Department said yesterday that "during the transition, Mr. Rattner made us aware of the pending investigation."

In an important front-page piece, the NYT reports on a so-far mostly overlooked factor that helped the Taliban gain control over Pakistan's Swat Valley: class warfare. In order to gain power, the Taliban skillfully exploited class divisions and ultimately forced out the approximately four dozen landlords that held the most power in the region. In order to do so, the Taliban organized armed gangs of landless peasants "that became their shock troops." The Taliban gained popularity by offering peasants, who were frustrated with their living conditions and a corrupt government that was deaf to their needs, what amounted to rich economic rewards and a feeling of self-determination. The ease with which the Taliban were able to exploit these entrenched class divisions is raising worries that the same series of events could play out in other parts of Pakistan, particularly in the populous Punjab province, which largely remains a feudal society.

In a piece that was reported in conjunction with ProPublica, the LAT fronts a look at how civilian contractors often have to endure long legal fights in order to get covered for injuries suffered in a war zone. Unlike soldiers, contractors are insured by private companies that frequently resist paying for coverage. The main culprit? American International Group. AIG is the main player in providing insurance to civilian contractors in war zones and has made a handsome profit from the business. As a whole, insurers have earned nearly $600 million in profit by charging premiums that a military audit called "unreasonably high." Yet that doesn't translate into good medical care. Insurers have rejected 44 percent of claims from contractors suffering serious injuries and more than half of claims relating to psychological ailments. Disputes are usually settled through mediation, but more than 1,000 cases have made their way to court. Workers win the vast majority of the appeals, but resolving the cases can take years while medical bills keep piling up.

The WP's Eugene Robinson writes that while it's way too easy to make fun of this week's "tea party" protesters, it would be a mistake to ignore them. It is certainly difficult to take the protesters seriously, particularly when a majority of the country seems willing to support Obama. But polls also show that people don't like the fact that so much government money is going to the banks, and Robinson says these poll numbers contain "a quiet warning." Once the economy begins to come back from the brink, Wall Street will be the first to show gains. But unemployment will remain high, meaning that the "mad-as-hell faction may thrive and multiply." This us vs. them narrative "is out there waiting to be exploited by anyone clever enough to fashion a sophisticated populist critique of the Obama administration's policies."

The NYT's Paul Krugman warns against counting "recoveries before they've hatched." Many have been expressing optimism about the economy, but there are still several reasons why we should be cautious. Things are still getting worse in several areas, and the good news isn't actually as good as it may appear at first glance. History has taught us "that one of the great policy dangers, in the face of a severe economic slump, is premature optimism." Although the Obama administration seems to get this, "there's a real risk" that all the optimistic talk "will breed a dangerous complacency."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.