Confirming what we already knew

CONFIRMING WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW…. I’d hoped we were past this, but the standard line from conservatives today is that President Obama somehow undermined national security yesterday by releasing the Bush administration’s secret torture memos. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey push the line pretty aggressively today in a WSJ op-ed, arguing, among other things, that exposing abusive tactics is likely to “diminish the effectiveness of these techniques.”

Actually, prohibiting torture and refusing to commit war crimes necessarily diminishes the effectiveness of these techniques since they won’t be used anymore. But I digress.

If the Hayden/Mukasey argument sounds familiar, it’s because Bush and Cheney, among others, used it with some regularity during the last administration. If future detainees know what we’re likely to do with them, the bad guys can prepare for those specific techniques. Obama, the argument goes, therefore made interrogations more difficult.

This is foolish for a variety of reasons. First, the president has already banned torture. Second, there’s no way to “prepare” for waterboarding. And as Greg Sargent explained, these complaints today are badly missing the point.

While a few technical torture details in the memos were new, much about the techniques themselves had already been public. Indeed, what’s actually new about the memos is that they reveal in unprecedented detail the Bush administration’s effort to legally justify already-known techniques. […]

[M]uch about these techniques was already publicly known. For instance, the recently released report from the Red Cross contains detailed descriptions of techniques such as hurling suspects against a wall; face-slapping; confinement in a box; prolonged nudity; sleep deprivation; waterboarding; etc., etc. These were the techniques detailed in yesterday’s memos. This stuff is detailed in other places.

Yes, there were some new details in yesterday’s memos — the “insect” torture, for instance — and the precise descriptions of some of the techniques were new, and hence striking. But the broad outlines were already known, so the memos didn’t really give away a host of torture secrets.

Quite right. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported today that the president became more inclined to release the materials, without significant redactions, precisely because the New York Review of Books had already published the Red Cross account. If most of the information was already in the public domain, there was less of a need for the administration to pretend the details were secret.

The point here has less to do with interrogation details and more to do with the lengths loyal Bushies went to rationalize and justify torture.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.