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That was then U.S. President George W. Bush’s emphatic response in 2005 when asked about how his government questioned terrorist suspects in U.S. custody. The release of four previously secret memos by the U.S. Justice Department reveals — in excruciating detail — just what U.S. interrogators were doing to get information from those detainees. It is not pleasant reading. The techniques that were permitted seem to meet most definitions of torture. Equally troubling, however, is the assertion that such behavior is justified if it provides needed information. That logic is a disturbing rationalization, and threatens to undo the principles that underpin our basic understanding of human rights and justice.

The four memos were written by top lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department during the time period of Aug. 1, 2002, to May 20, 2005, and they provide a legal analysis of and justification for “enhanced interrogation techniques” that some consider torture. Those memos go into considerable detail about what is permitted. The authors signed off on waterboarding (covering a suspect’s mouth with a towel and pouring water over his mouth to simulate drowning), walling (slamming a suspect into a flexible false wall), sleep deprivation, dousing with water, forcing them to sit or stand in painful positions for long periods of time, liquid diets, and other techniques alone or in combination and over an extended period of time.

While these acts may shock the conscience of ordinary people, the authors concluded that they did not constitute torture because “they did not cause severe or permanent mental or physical pain akin to organ failure or death.” That is a novel interpretation of torture, and one that is at odds with almost every other definition. For example, the 1984 Convention Against Torture (which the U.S. signed) defines torture as the “cruel, inhumane, or degrading” infliction of severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, on a prisoner to obtain information or a confession, or to mete out a punishment for a suspected crime.

In other words, Mr. Bush was justified in saying that “the U.S. does not torture,” but only because his lawyers had redefined the meaning of torture itself. They raised the bar to make previously unacceptable behavior legal. Such expedience and sophistry from a government that had prided itself on its commitment to transcendent and universal principles is shocking. But Mr. Bush and his chief advisers believed that such steps were needed to protect their nation in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — many still do.

The question for this group is whether those techniques secured information unavailable by other, more conventional, means. Not surprisingly, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA under Mr. Bush, insist that it did. Even Adm. Dennis Blair, the current director of National Intelligence, has reportedly conceded that those techniques worked. Mr. Cheney wants President Barack Obama to declassify memos that prove that point.

Actual interrogators say those claims are overstated. They argue that most of the high value information was obtained from traditional questioning. They insist that gaining a suspect’s trust is the best way to get reliable information; someone who has been tortured will say anything — and often did.

Opponents of advanced interrogation techniques also argue that the quality of the information it reveals is irrelevant. They believe, as do we, that resorting to such methods is destructive of the men and women who use them and of the government that sanctions them. Torture is always wrong. That bright, simple line distinguishes right from wrong. (The rhetorical and logical circumlocutions that the lawyers used are proof of the very power of the term.) Accepting torture as a “necessary evil” erases America’s moral authority in the struggle against terror.

Publication of the memos has set off a ferocious debate in Washington, not only about their contents, but about the propriety of their release and how to respond. There are calls for punishment, but prosecuting lower-level officials who in good faith relied on the legal judgments of their superiors is unfair. Demands for accountability from the memo drafters or their political superiors look like political payback and the settling of scores. Mr. Obama has made clear that he prefers to look forward. He understands how divisive and partisan a probe of interrogation tactics could become. An investigation of that nature threatens to paralyze Washington at a time when real business needs to get done.

Exposing “enhanced interrogation techniques” for what they truly are is a sign that the U.S. is once again struggling to reconcile its principles with its practice. We applaud that transparency and the readiness to concede its own flaws. This is a first step toward reclaiming its moral authority. As Mr. Obama reaches out to other nations to build new relations and tackle the many challenges that lie ahead, that honesty has never been more needed.

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