The New York Times reported Sunday that two senior al-Qaida suspects, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had been waterboarded 266 times. After 35 seconds of waterboarding, Zubaydah declared he would tell interrogators anything they wanted to know. Nevertheless agents repeated the waterboarding 82 more times. Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times, later testified that he had confessed under torture to many acts he did not commit.
Last week, President Obama released four memoranda prepared during the Bush administration by Justice Department lawyers Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and John Yoo, defining particular coercive interrogation methods used by CIA agents on captured al-Qaida suspects as acts that they claimed did not constitute torture.
Specific approved interrogation methods, including "walling" (repeatedly throwing a blindfolded prisoner against a wall), face-slapping, waterboarding, nudity and sleep deprivation, are described in detail. Their description sounds like torture.
But armed with the memoranda, President Bush apparently believed he could proudly assert that "The United States does not torture," because the Justice Department had told him that the approved interrogation techniques did not meet its contrived definition.
Until 2001, the United States considered acts of torture "cruel and unusual punishment," prohibited by the Constitution, by law, and by treaty.
It was wise of Obama to release the documents and thereby to draw a clear line between the illegal acts of the Bush administration and his own.
Less wisely, Obama combined the release of the memoranda with the assurance that none of the agents who actually used the interrogation methods would be prosecuted, on the theory that they were complying with the guidelines that had been set by the Justice Department.
Aside from the likelihood that some of the agents (many of them contractors) may have exceeded the Justice Department guidelines, the United States has held, since the Nuremburg Trials, that "only following orders" is not an admissible defense. Indeed, Japanese prison guards who waterboarded American prisoners were found guilty of torture.
The release of the Justice Department memoranda will almost certainly result in legal proceedings against the lawyers who wrote them, for knowingly advocating criminal acts. There are calls to impeach Bybee, now a federal judge.
But merely prosecuting the lawyers will hardly satisfy the need to bring closure. The officials who requested the documents and relied on them to rationalize the treatment of prisoners, many of whom turned out to be innocent of the actions of which they were suspected, are the true culprits.
It's likely that there will indeed be further prosecutions and congressional hearings. Former Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, Cheney's Chief of Staff David Addington, CIA Directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his assistants Douglas Feith, Stephen Cambone and William Haynes, and retired Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, all need to answer for their roles in condoning torture.
And the day may even come when hard questions will be asked, in Congress if not in court, of their superiors, President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
There are those who will assert that in the immediate wake of 9/11 any action would have been justified to prevent another attack. Cheney recently said of waterboarding and other forms of torture: "It worked. It's been enormously valuable in terms of saving lives and preventing another mass casualty attack on the U.S."
But Sen. John McCain and other victims of torture have said repeatedly that torture doesn't work, that victims of torture will say anything to make the pain stop, and that if the United States tortures captured soldiers as a matter of policy, others will feel no compunctions about torturing American soldiers they capture.
Torture is illegal, immoral and ineffective. It degrades the standing of the United States around the world.
The first steps are being taken to hold accountable those who ordered it, approved it and conducted it.
Tom Halsted is a regular Times columnist.