Yes, the United States did torture detainees, both at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. One may argue that torture was necessary, or even justified--I would not be one making that argument--but the issue of whether or not we did is not at issue, not anymore. The piece by Mark Danner in the NY Review of Books referenced in his NY Times Op-Ed today lays out the case about as clearly as it can be. Here's a taste of it:
The result is a document—labeled "confidential" and clearly intended only for the eyes of those senior American officials to whom the CIA's Mr. Rizzo would show it—that tells a certain kind of story, a narrative of what happened at "the black sites" and a detailed description, by those on whom they were practiced, of what the President of the United States described to Americans as an "alternative set of procedures." It is a document for its time, literally "impossible to put down," from its opening page—I would only quibble with the final part of this--the words "torture" and "cruel, unhuman and degrading treatment" are not relatively simple to define. I think that the Bush administration tried to push its definition to the point where the word was fairly meaningless, since they said onnly "'organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death'" constitute torture punishable by law." But the Bush administration's attempts to redefine the word don't necessarily make a definition easy.
1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....
—to its stark and unmistakable conclusion:The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Such unflinching clarity, from the body legally charged with overseeing compliance with the Geneva Conventions—in which the terms "torture" and "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" are accorded a strictly defined legal meaning—couldn't be more significant, or indeed more welcome after years in which the President of the United States relied on the power of his office either to redefine or to obfuscate what are relatively simple words.
That said, this piece should be required reading for everyone, since we can't move forward unless we acknowledge where we've been. Right now, my first year students are working with an essay by Mark Bowden titled "The Dark Art of Interrogation," which argues for the Bush administration's actions as of 2003. They're reading this piece now, and we'll get to see just how well Bowden's argument stands up against real world examples of torture.