Q&A: Phillipe Sands

Torture Team uncovers the role played by US government lawyers in authorising torture. Does Obama’s decision to declassify a number of damning Bush administration memos feel to you like a vindication?

I felt more stunned than vindicated when he did that, because I didn’t think these things would happen so quickly. Though there were hints during the election campaign, particularly when Joe Biden opened the door to investigations in September. And I gather from people I know in the Obama camp that they were very focused on this issue even then. The crucial moment was 21 April this year, when the president said that the fate of those he called the “framers” of the legal decisions concerning torture would be in the hands of the attorney general. That was when I said to myself, “I’ve done my stuff – it’s over to others now.” But if you’d have asked me four years ago, when I started this project, if I could imagine the president of the United States giving the green light to possible criminal investigations, I would have said no. And I think it goes pretty high, up to Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice.

Obama has given assurances that there will be no targeting of interrogators who followed the legal advice in good faith. Do you think he was right to do so?

The situation in the US is very delicate, but I’m pretty sympathetic to Obama. I think he is right not to target the CIA interrogators. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t have responsibility and it doesn’t mean that in due course they may not face prosecution. But the real issue of responsibility goes much higher; it goes to the lawyers.

Torture Team is about the lawyers in the Bush administration who allowed considerations of national security to trump the rule of law.

Right. There was no commitment to the rule of law. Law was part of the problem, [as] they wheeled out those lawyers who could be relied upon to sign on the dotted line, and steered a careful course around the many lawyers in the administration and in the military who would have given a contrary view.

One of those who signed on the dotted line, as you put it, was Douglas Feith, under-secretary of defence for policy in the first Bush administration. He functions in your book almost as its anti-hero.

Feith is a complicated character. He has really taken exception to me since the book came out. He loses no opportunity to accuse me of distortions and lies, but every time he opens his mouth he shoots himself in the foot. I think he’s utterly terrified of prosecution and is flailing around making allegations, but he was head of policy and he should have asked what the consequences of authorising techniques like waterboarding would be.

Why do you think Feith and others were so apparently insouciant about the methods they were authorising?

These were ordinary, decent, often religious people who fell into cruelty. There was extraordinary pressure on them from the upper echelons of the administration. It was linked to Dick Cheney’s idea of a “unitary executive” – the notion that there are no limits on . . . protect[ing] national security: once the president has determined that the country is in extremis, there’s nothing he can’t do. But I trust Obama to put things right. He is playing a long game. I think there will be investigations in the US and I think he’ll get it right.

Philippe Sands, QC is professor of law at University College, London. “Torture Team: Uncovering War Crimes in the Land of the Free” is published by Penguin (£9.99)