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The Latest Drafts of the History of Torture

Ninety years ago, in the shadow of the Great War, long before the invention of cable news and bloggers, the great American writer and journalist Walter Lippmann wrote in Liberty And The News that:

The world about which each man is supposed to have opinions has become so complicated as to defy his powers of understanding. What he knows of events that matter enormously to him, the purposes of governments, the aspirations of peoples, the struggles of classes, he knows at second, third or fourth hand. He cannot go and see for himself.
Americans could not go see for themselves the effects of the Bush Administration's torture policies. There are no commuter flights to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the train doesn't run on time to Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. The digital cameras that recorded the degradation of Iraqi prisoners at the prison were never supposed to see the light of day. And the video recordings of the Gitmo interrogations were improperly destroyed by the CIA so that they never would.

We were blind but now we begin to see. Slowly, a clearer picture is emerging of the legal and political path from the "torture memos" authorized by the Office of Legal Counsel (by men like John Yoo and Steven Bradbury and Alberto Gonzales) to the reported water-boarding (simulated death by drowning) of Khalid Sheik Mohammed not once or twice but 183 times. What began in 2002 as faux legal ambiguity (about the legality of torture) turned into official military policy and then into a moral and diplomatic disaster and now has become, as almost all facts always do, a part of history.

So do yourself a favor. Since you weren't invited to be there at the start of America's torture policies, since you didn't get a chance to observe the interrogations or question the interrogated, spend the time it takes to understand what happened, and why, and how, and by whom. Read two recently published think pieces, David Cole's piece in The New York Review of Books on Bush-era lawyers and their culpability for torture and The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan and his open letter to former president George W. Bush. They are most comprehensible and accessible works yet on the history of torture in America, 2002-2009.

Neither article is perfect. None are. But both offer pointed, well-written and earnestly candid accounts of how we got to where we were-- and why it's not worth going back.

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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