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Torture, by any other name, smelleth as foul

By Harvey Silverglate

The media has been abuzz today with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s discomfort with Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey – and his refusal to opine whether waterboarding (the interrogation technique widely reported as used by CIA interrogators to wring information out of suspected terrorists) is illegal or unconstitutional. Whether waterboarding works – that is, provides accurate and reliable information – is immaterial to questions about its illegality; nonetheless, it is abundantly clear to everyone outside the administration that waterboarding is, in fact, illegal.

Mukasey has a strong professional interest in not answering the question. Back in the summer of 2004, I wrote in my Boston Phoenix “Freedom Watch” column that the infamous “torture memos” had been drafted to allow interrogators to defend themselves, if they are prosecuted under the statutes that criminalize torture, by claiming they had relied on the good faith advice of counsel. (Such prosecutions would only occur if the immunity Congress has granted to interrogators – in the Military Commissions Act and the Detainee Treatment Act, according to Yale Law professor Jack Balkin – were revoked sometime in the future when the country comes back to its senses and its adherence to the rule of law.) The argument that the memos were written solely to give interrogators the operative cover of an advice of counsel defense was recently given additional credence in the memoir written by Harvard Law Professor and former Department of Justice lawyer Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency.

By not taking a stand on whether waterboarding is torture, Mukasey is trying not to undermine any defense the interrogators might have. While interrogators could still rely on such a defense, a proclamation after the fact by the incoming Attorney General, to the effect that John Yoo’s advice of counsel was incorrect, would raise questions about whether it was made in good faith. An advice of counsel defense is valid only if the advice was given by the lawyer, and received by the client, in good faith.

But Mukasey’s evasions aren’t solely based on concerns over future liability for CIA interrogators. They are more transparent and laughable than the news media portray them, because he actually has effectively conceded – in not so many words – that waterboarding is torture. And he may not even know that he has done so.

He insists that he would define “torture” as conduct that “shocks the conscience.” Presumably he has deployed that vague definition so that the Bush Administration – and Republican Senators who must vote to confirm him – will figure that the legalities pose little threat to CIA torturers. After all, whose conscience are we talking about, anyway? Dick Cheney’s?

But here’s the rub: behavior that “shocks the conscience” is not as open-ended as it might appear. The formulation comes from a 1952 Supreme Court opinion, Rochin v. California, in which Justice Felix Frankfurter declared unconstitutional the harsh treatment lavished by California authorities on a suspect who swallowed his stash of morphine as he was arrested during a raid at his home. The officers took Mr. Rochin to a hospital, where, in the Court’s words,

"at the direction of one of the officers a doctor forced an emetic solution through a tube into Rochin’s stomach against his will. This ‘stomach pumping’ produced vomiting. In the vomited matter were found two capsules which proved to contain morphine."

The court determined that stomach pumping – a medical procedure commonly performed when someone attempts suicide by pills, or when a child accidentally swallows poison – violates the requirement that citizens be accorded “due process of law” as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The court found that when done by police in search of evidence rather than doctors acting out of medical necessity, stomach pumping was too invasive to withstand constitutional standards of decency. Certain principles are inherent in the concept of “due process”, and stomach pumping crosses the line:

"We are compelled to conclude that the proceedings by which this conviction was obtained do more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism about combating crime too energetically. This is conduct that shocks the conscience…. this course of proceeding by agents of the government to obtain evidence is bound to offend even hardened sensibilities. They are methods too close to the rack and the screw to permit of constitutional differentiation."

In Rochin, stomach pumping involved emptying the defendant’s stomach in order to retrieve morphine capsules. Similarly, waterboarding involves strapping the victim to a board – a rack? – and filling the victim’s lungs with water (producing the sensation, and eventually the reality, of drowning) in order to get him to answer questions.

So the Judiciary Committee should be putting this question to Mukasey: if stomach pumping “shocks the conscience,” can waterboarding be far behind? Are you really unable to decide if inducing the sensation of drowning by filling the detainee’s lungs with water shocks the conscience any less than making a prisoner throw up?

(Thanks to James F. Tierney for his assistance in preparing this blog entry.)

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